Is the Stair Stepper a Good Workout?

Athletes have trained by running up (and down) stairs ever since, well, the invention of stairs. And the admonishment to take the stairs whenever possible as a way of staying fit is pretty much everywhere. It's hardly surprising that machines simulating the act of climbing stairs would become a standard piece of gym equipment.

While step machines in their various forms do a pretty good job of imitating real stairs, their main advantage is mainly just being in the same place with everything else. Are they a good workout? Absolutely.

Step machines offer moderate- to high-intensity aerobic activity with the added benefit of resistance training you get from pumping your legs. Of course, you'll want to balance things out with some upper body work, but stair steppers in their various forms are a worthy addition to any workout routine.

So Many Step Machines, So Little Time

Stair steppers have been pronounced passe more than once, yet the basic idea keeps getting recycled and the noble old beast keeps getting reincarnated. The Elliptical, which upstaged the basic step machine in the 1990s, moves in a more circular motion and takes some of the burn out of the climbing motion — too much, according to critics.

Nowadays, the more challenging stepmill reigns supreme. Step machines have two pedals to simulate the stair-climbing action while stepmills are like little escalators with motor-driven steps going down as you climb upward.

Meeting Your Cardio Training Needs

Part of Step Airwalk machines at fitness gym. - Selective focus
(Image: Rabyesang/iStock/GettyImages)

The National Institutes of Health most recent Physical Activity Guidelines recommends that adults do a minimum of 2 hours and 30 minutes each week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of intense exercise. Step machines make it easy to achieve this: Put in 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week and you've achieved your goal.

Step machines can certainly help you accomplish that in spades because the simulated upward trajectory forces your heart to work all the harder. The pace depends on you. Most modern machines have sensors that will give you decent approximations of your heart rate, so you can be quite methodical about pushing your limits.

Building Muscle Mass

Step machines can certainly get you huffing and puffing, but what about building muscle mass? The good news is that because you're simulating the climbing of stairs, you'll be essentially using your legs to press the weight of your torso as you ascend the stairway to endorphin heaven.

In this way, you will get at least a good portion of the resistance training needed to build muscle mass, which in turn lowers cholesterol, and sets your blood sugar right. Needless to say, if you want to firm up or add bulk to your upper body, you'll need to look past the step machine.

Step Machine and Weight Loss

Step machines can assist you in achieving your weight-loss goals by helping you burn calories. According to healthstatus.com, a 40-year-old, 150-pound woman would burn 232 calories in 30 minutes on a step machine, theoretically meaning she could lose three or four pounds in a month of daily, 30-minute workouts.

For most people, though, exercising more means eating more, in which case the calorie deficit is reduced and sometimes even wiped out. The relationship between exercise and weight loss is tricky, and if you're aiming to lose weight, adding calorie control to exercise is the surest path to victory.

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