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Fitness Advice: Breaking The Stairmaster Habit

Written by Stu Watson

If you've been stepping your way to boredom at the gym, you'll want to read what columnist Stu Watson has to say about the benefits of climbing real stairs.

Evening at the Watsons': The teenager in our house struggles to her feet from the kitchen table, staggers across the kitchen floor and mumbles something about borrowing a ruler. "I thought I gave you one," I say.

"You did, but I don't want to go downstairs to get it," says the budding track athlete.

I keep hoping that in time she will come to see the household stairs as I do, not as a challenge to be avoided but as an opportunity to be embraced.

Watch this video on taking the stairs.

Earlier in the day, midway between this and that, I had tucked in a mini-session on the stairs to the master bedroom. I took them two at a time on the way up and one at a time down. Ten times, and I didn't even break a sweat.

But I felt it. Do this four or five times a day, and the legs will remember it the next morning. Which is why I say, "You can have your stair climber and the zombie stare that accompanies all that stomping in place."

I love stair climbing, but I want real stairs. I seek them out, and run them in the rain, up through the ivy-covered concrete and handrails, past the fire escapes and kitchen doors of the world.

Jane Parker loves her stairs too. A real estate agent in Hood River, Ore., Parker is a whippet-lean bundle of verve who loves to run. That is, until middle-aged bone starts grinding on bone. "Then I hit the stairs," she says.

It's five flights from the center of Parker's hometown to the heights above the windsurfing capital of the world. "They're interesting stairs, all different steepnesses," she says. "We march up and jog down."

"We." She always takes a friend. "They're a social workout. I've never done them alone in my life. I would kill myself if I had to do that." Forty-five minutes later, she has enjoyed a great workout, camaraderie and a spectacular view of the Columbia River Gorge.

How many times have we been advised to take the stairs? I'm not going to tell you I take them to the 21st floor for business meetings. But I do take them up or down from the parking garage. It works.

Nobody knows this better than VonRay Johnson. A 54-year-old bodybuilder and certified fitness trainer in Portland, Ore., Johnson builds stairs, in the parks of the city's southwest hills, into workouts for his clients.

"It challenges you to be the best," Johnson says. "It's great for the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves." But if you aren't yet in shape, go low-impact on the stairs at first to protect your joints, he advises.

Done Johnson's way, stairs can help you build power, strength and endurance. You also will need to take a shower.

As for those of you who can't find the time for an exclusive session on the stairs, do them my way: Tuck them into your day; a stair here, a stair there. You'll get some of the same physical benefits, you'll avoid inane elevator conversation, and you won't have to worry about stinking up a client's office.

A total body workout is only a staircase away.

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