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Step Up!
Step Aerobics May Be Just The Jolt You Need to Get Into Shape

March 26th, 2004

By Louis Wittig :eCureMe Staff Writer
April 14th, 2004 : Physician Reviewed

If a long winter has left you lethargic and you want to feel fit for spring, consider challenging yourself with a cardiovascular step aerobics workout. Think about it: you take thousands of steps a day, but how many of them really count? Working this innocuous movement into an intense regimen can strengthen your heart and lungs, tighten flab zones from your waist to your ankles and improve your coordination.

Step Up!

Getting Started

You’ve probably seen it before - a room full of spandex clad students climbing up and down small plastic boxes in rhythm with an instructor. Step aerobics exploded onto the fitness scene in the early 1990s, and has been packing health clubs ever since. But it hasn’t always been so organized. It was born in the mid-1980s, when an aerobics instructor from Atlanta was recovering from a knee injury. Instead of practicing her normal, high-impact aerobics routine, she started climbing up and down her porch steps to keep in shape. When she got back to work, the series of repetitive ups and downs caught on with her students - and eventually the country.

Most people who get into step have seen it around before they decide to give it a try, according to Izett Barnett, a Los Angeles step aerobics instructor and the creator of Xtreme Step, a workout series that blends hip-hop rhythms with aerobic moves. The equipment you need to start is minimal: comfortable work out clothes, a "board", "bench" or "box" and a pair of sneakers that provide good lateral support.

For the clothes, something akin to shorts and a t-shirt will do. Board, bench and box all refer to the plastic, rectangular platform that exercisers climb up and down. Boards, which can run anywhere from $20 to $95, are usually height-adjustable. The right shoes are also vital to a smooth workout. Often, step requires that one climb on and off the board while moving side to side, instead of back and forth. This motion can create an impact that strains the ankle and foot if they’re not properly supported by the shoe. Instead of opting for low-cut, light running shoes, steppers should be wearing high-top, cross-training footwear that shelters the foot and ankle and absorbs the energy of lateral movement.

Once you’ve rounded up all the materials, there’s an important decision to make. You can either begin your routine at home, practicing along with one of many video step programs on the market, or you can enroll in a step class at your local health club. If you’re somewhat shy about working out in public, stepping in privacy can be more comfortable. Barnett, however, argues that classes are the way to go. "I suggest doing it in a group. That way, you’re surrounded by other people who are working towards the same goal as you and a positive peer pressure to reach those goals can build." In addition, classes offer the attention of a certified instructor, helping you to properly develop your technique.

Making it Work

In general, step programs last about an hour and are set to high tempo music. If you’ve committed to step, either at home or in a class, you will want to aim at doing a full routine at least twice a week. Eventually, as the workout becomes more familiar, challenge yourself by stepping three to four times a week. Beginning steppers should always start out with their boards at the lowest height setting, roughly six-inches off the ground, to prevent overdoing an unfamiliar drill. As you gain confidence, you can raise your board level and make your workout more demanding.

Instructors will usually break down step routines into three phases. At first, a warm-up will get your body going from zero to sixty. Then, twenty to thirty minutes of fast-paced stepping will keep your heart working hard. This second phase is what really benefits the body: as the heart revs up, it pumps blood through the body faster. Respiration increases in order to keep the surging blood full of oxygen. The result is that both your heart and lungs become stronger and more efficient. After you’ve reached your cardiovascular peak for the session, you should "cool down" for roughly ten to fifteen minutes. Cooling down is a period of less intense exercise that helps to ease your heart rate back to normal. Cooling down, instead of stopping suddenly, helps to prevent undue stress on the heart.

At the same time the heart and lungs are being pressed, other, more cosmetic changes are taking place as well. As you step back and forth, the leg muscles that are pulling and pushing your feet are also getting a workout. Over the long term, steppers will often see their calves and thighs tighten and firm up. If you’ve got two left feet, stepping can help to change that as well. Step isn’t all that different from dancing: lots of intricate footwork performed to music. Sticking to a step routine can strengthen your coordination just like it strengthens your cardiovascular system.

Step is most effective in increasing overall health, not necessarily one particular part and it works best when it’s integrated into a more comprehensive fitness regimen. "Too much step can lean you out," says Barnett, warning that an overemphasis on step’s cardio training can lead to a loss of upper-body muscle mass and definition. "Working on running and weight training, in addition to step, can help built it back, " he adds.

Of course, step isn’t for everyone. If you’d like to give it a try, be sure to consult your doctor first. Certain injuries and conditions - especially those that affect the knees and back - can be aggravated by the repetitive motion and impact of step. If you do get the all clear from your physician, find your own way into it, take it slow and remember that the long journey to better health starts with a single step.

If you’re interested in learning more about the latest in step aerobics, check out Izett’s unique step routines at

Contact Louis Wittig at

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