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Step up to better balance

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Step up to better balance

To the uninitiated, step aero-bics looks like a gentle form of exercise, suitable for all ages and fitness levels

To the uninitiated, step aero-bics looks like a gentle form of exercise, suitable for all ages and fitness levels. Its creator Gin Miller's belief is that step aerobics offers the cardiovascular benefits of running, but without the wear and tear on the joints.

The latest studies bear this out. Step classes provide a more vigorous workout than regular aerobics, and raises both cardiorespiratory and muscle fitness (Br J Sports Med, 2006;40: 860-6). In one study, step training burned significantly more calories than running at 8.05 kph (J Strength Cond Res, 2006; 20: 593-6).

Besides boosting cardiofitness, step aerobics, combined with dieting, appears to be especially effective for decreasing body fat, compared with diet plus walking, or dieting alone (Ist Tip Fak Derg, 2007; 70: 064-9).

This may be because step aerobics combines lifting your entire body weight against gravity while moving aerobically. It also requires the use of many muscle groups-those directly involved in the exercise as well as those that support the main muscle groups, plus the stabilizing (balanc-ing) muscles. While stepping, some 90 per cent of your muscles are used.

However, the biggest benefit is balance, particularly for the over-50s. Comparing step and walking with a Ballates programme (designed to strengthen the central core muscles through balance techniques), the surprise finding was that both step aerobics and walking resulted in better improvements in postural stability and general balance than did Ballates (J Sport Sci Med, 2006; 5: 390-9).

This advantage is likely related to the fact that stepping makes use of all planes of movement-forward and back, side to side, up and down, rotational and diagonal. Having to constantly avoid tripping over the bench enhances our 'proprioceptive awareness'-our sense of the body's position in space, and the location and movement of some of its parts in relation to others.

Maintaining balance is critical for women over 50. Around 30 per cent of Americans over 65 fall at least once a year, and 15 per cent suffer from recurrent falls. Falls are the most common cause of bedridden conditions, particularly hip fractures. As we age, our musculoskeletal, neur-al and sensory faculties decline, affecting our balance. Regimes that work on maintaining these systems help to retard the process.

Step classes also appear to be good for bone health-but only if you work hard and step high. The osteo-genic index, or amount of bone formation with exercise, increased significantly with stepping at 135 beats per minute (bpm). However, some believe this rate is too fast and risky, and suggest a slower speed (see box below) (Br J Sports Med, 206; 40: 860-6).

Other studies show that any sort of step exercise has positive effects on the bone and joints, and improves mechanical strength, too (Br J Sports Med, 206; 40: 860-6).

Stepping also lowers cholesterol and modifies blood fat levels. In college students doing eight weeks of either step training or aerobic dancing, both groups improved their total cholesterol levels, but only the steppers also improved their 'good' high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol levels, and their ratio of total cholesterol to HDL (J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2001; 41: 380-5).

Given the need for coordination to negotiate the bench in time to music, injuries are inevitable, but they are still less than with other sports. Steppers sustain less than half the number of injuries as do runners (J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 1998; 38: 221-6) and, of those injuries, most were related to muscle soreness, particularly in the calf and shoulders. As with other skills in life, your technique-and your chances of avoiding injury-will improve with experience.

Joanna Evans & Lynne McTaggart

Stepping safely

Experts agree that, to minimize injury, it's important not to do step at too higha tempo. The Human Performance Laboratory at Auburn University in Montgom-ery, Alabama, reported in the June/July 1997 issue of the Reebok Alliance Newsletter that tempos above 128 bpm significantly increase impact on the lower limbs. While experienced steppers may be able to cope at this speed, novices are at an increased risk of injury. So, to ensure your safety while stepping:

- Keep platform height to a minimum. Although experienced steppers can use a 10-inch platform, 4 inches may be more appropriate for the elderly, beginners, very young people, pregnant women and those who have had

a previous knee injury or are undergoing rehabilitation. According to Step Reebok guidelines, all steppers should never use a platform height that causes the knee joint to flex deeper than 90 degrees on the first upward step.

- Learn the correct posture-head up, shoulders down and back, chest up, abdominals lightly contracted and buttocks gently tucked under the hips.

- Perfect your technique. When stepping up, land with the entire sole of the foot completely on the platform, and step softly; when stepping down, step close to the platform, with the heels on the floor to help absorb shock. If you need to step away from the platform, keep the weight on the forefoot.

- Avoid using hand weights. According to Reebok, this offers little, if any, benefit and only increases the risk of injuring the shoulder joints.


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