Ask FGG: "Is there an easier way for overweight women to climb stairs?"
Posted by Angela in Ask FGG,Health + Beauty
Facing a fat-girl nemesis (image by puroticorico)

The fire alarm went off in our ancient office building today -- welcome to Monday morning! After covering our ears and exchanging "really?" glances, we reluctantly allowed ourselves to be herded toward the stairwell, where we began descending the stairs -- all 17 flights of them. By floor number 10 or so, all I could think was how grateful I was that we wouldn't be asked to climb back up the same never-ending spiral. With that experience fresh in my mind, it seemed like a good week to answer this question:
Dear FGG: I hate stairs! No matter how slowly I climb, I'm always panting after one flight. Is there a way to climb stairs without feeling winded?"

Let's be honest: stairs can be a pain when you're a fat girl. We have more weight to carry, there's increased pressure on our joints and feet, and it can be embarrassing to get to the top and feel like you're the only one gasping for air. I've known many overweight people who've carefully structured their daily paths to include the fewest number of stairs possible. I'll even admit to occasionally opting for an extra two-block walk and skipping the faster train in favor of a bus if it meant zero stairs.

But climbing steps is a part of life, whether inside your two-story house, because of a broken elevator, or to access nosebleed seats to watch your favorite hockey team. So when I interviewed certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor Cortney Wall of Galter LifeCenter (while chest-deep in pool water -- anything for our readers!), I secretly hoped she was about to impart the hush-hush, magic-bullet tip of a lifetime.

It's all about heart

Well, yes and no. Wall insists there's no magical combination of muscle groups to tone or cajole into moving us up the stairs more easily. Instead, "the key is to strengthen your heart and your breathing and your muscles," she says. "People think, 'Oh, I'll work on my legs or my arms,' and strength training is great but it won't strengthen your heart to help your body become more efficient." Cardio training is the only way to do that. Definitely a clear answer, if not the quick fix we might like.

Wall compares the body's cardio capabilities to a car's gas mileage: Many overweight women lack cardiovascular strength, so every movement -- especially stair climbing, where there's an altitude shift -- uses more energy (fuel) than a fit woman of comparable size. The more cardiovascular work you do, the more you ramp up your body's efficiency. "If we went out to the lobby right now and climbed the flight of stairs, you might get to the top and be out of breath," Wall explained to me. "But keep working out and getting your heart rate up and in six months when we climb the stairs again, you might think, 'Wow, that was nothing!' That's your body going from 15 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon. You're more efficient because your heart is stronger."

"Get your body moving and your heart rate up," Wall says, adding that activities like walking and water aerobics (which she teaches) are outstanding for building strong hearts and the ability to do more with one's body. Plus, she reminds us, they're low-impact and excellent cardio options for women who are just beginning to strengthen their hearts. Consider this another excellent reason to try for 30 minutes a day of continuous movement, where your heart rate is up and your intensity level is moderate (i.e. you can talk but can't sing). We've heard it before, but three days a week will help produce real-world results -- like easier stair climbing -- that come from increased stamina.

In the meantime. . .

Okay, so you're thinking toward building cardiovascular strength for the future, but in the meantime, it's May 4 and you have to hoof a flight. What to do? Asked for breathing suggestions to avoid getting winded, Wall suggests drawing steady breaths in through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth. "Don't forget to breathe, and don't rush yourself. Try to find a cadence that feels right, like in for three counts and out for four."

The other tip is so obvious we often forget it: "Take your time," reminds Wall. "And if you need to take a minute or two to recover at the top, go ahead and do it." For me, the slower I climb the more tired I get, so I tend to try to power up the stairs as quickly as possible. However, taking a break partway up is fine, too. Whatever gets you to the top safely.

To that point, Wall makes my favorite point of our conversation: "So much of what we worry about is in our heads. Ninety-nine percent of the time, no one's looking."

Thanks, Cortney, for your great advice and for loving the mission of FGG! Now tell us, readers, how have you won the battle of girl vs. stairs?