Health: America Goes Stair Crazy

Better machines propel the popularity of step climbing

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Every weekday before sunrise, a large crowd gathers in front of the Gross Court Athletic Club in Woodland, Calif., and waits eagerly for the doors to open at 5:30. What's the attraction? An aerobics class conducted by Jane Fonda? No, these health buffs are standing in line for a chance to climb stairs. Well, not real stairs. The club features those ubiquitous machines that enable people to simulate the healthful huffing and puffing of clambering up steps.

Stair climbing is the fastest-growing form of aerobic exercise in the U.S., according to American Sports Data. An estimated 4 million people, from young professionals to energetic grandparents, have joined the climbing generation, an increase of more than 40% since the end of 1988. In many health clubs, stair-climbing machines are more popular than stationary bicycles, and they threaten to make treadmills a thing of the past.

The growing vogue for stair climbing has been made possible by the development of new and better machines. They come in a dozen different models, including several home versions, that are easier to use and much more widely available than earlier devices. Over the past year, many health clubs have doubled the number of machines for their members. Even so, supply has badly trailed demand. In some places club managers strictly enforce time limits to keep people from fighting over the machines. Those tired of the health-club hassle can buy home machines for much less than the $2,000 to $3,400 that professional models cost. The $400 Precor Fitness Climber routinely ranks among the ten top-selling items in the Sharper Image catalog.

The benefits of stair climbing first gained attention in 1968, when fitness guru Dr. Kenneth Cooper promoted aerobic exercise as a good way to strengthen muscles and build endurance. Interest swelled in 1977, when a study showed that men who climbed more than five flights a day had 25% fewer heart attacks than those who stuck to elevators and escalators. But most people found it inconvenient or boring to climb stairs regularly. Many lived in ranch-style houses, and high-rise-apartment dwellers were leery of trudging up and down deserted stairwells.

The beginnings of a solution came in 1983, when the Tulsa-based StairMaster company pioneered the stair-climbing machine. The first model looked like a three-step escalator, and the steps revolved like a treadmill. But people found it hard to keep up with the machine, and only the superfit mastered it. In 1986 StairMaster introduced the 4000 PT, which was simpler to use. Exercisers push a pair of bicycle-like pedals that move up and down instead of in circles, and a computerized screen gives such data as the number of "flights" climbed and the "distance" traveled. Fans say they can burn off 10% more calories on stair machines than on stationary bicycles, and the step climbers are easier on the feet and legs than treadmills are.

StairMaster's success has inspired competitors, among them Bally, the maker of arcade games and slot machines. In June Bally subsidiary Life Fitness put out its Lifestep model for health clubs. It has large, easy-to-move pedals and an advanced computer screen that tells users how many calories they are burning at any given moment. The price: $3,395, in contrast to $2,195 for the StairMaster 4000 PT.

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