COLUMBUS, Ohio - Taking a hands-off approach is the best way for a woman to maximize her stepping-machine workout, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that women who used the handrails on a stepping-machine had maximum heart rates up to 5 percent lower than women who did not use the rail. Oxygen uptake was up to 8 percent less for women who used the handrails.
"If women want to get the most benefit when using a stair climbing machine, they shouldn't hold on to the hand rails, even with a very light touch," said Sharon Christman, a study co-author and a doctoral student at Ohio State University.
"This doesn't mean that handrails shouldn't be used at all; but if the person has a limited amount of time and wants to get the most out of her workout, she should keep her hands off of the rails."
The study appears in a recent issue of the journal Research in Nursing & Health.
Christman said that the findings of this study do not apply to men. A previous study found that when men used a stepping machine, their oxygen uptake and heart rates did not significantly decrease when they touched the rails. "This could be a result of gender, the physical fitness of subjects or the type of stepping machine used," she said.
In this study, the researchers compared the heart rates and oxygen uptakes of 15 middle-aged women during a workout on a step treadmill. Unlike a traditional stair-stepping machine or treadmill, the step treadmill has a revolving vertical staircase, which simulates the climbing of eight-inch steps.
The women went through two sets of exercise - one set consisted of three bouts at 25 steps per minute; the other consisted of three bouts at 33 steps per minute. "These step rates are typically used by sedentary women who begin an exercise program," Christman said.
The researchers randomly assigned three different handrail approaches during each set of exercise: a light touch - placing hands on and loosely wrapping the fingers around the handrails; a very light touch - placing the thumb and first two fingers on the handrails; and keeping the hands off of the rails.
At 25 steps per minute, there was a 7 to 8 percent decrease in oxygen uptake during both continuous light and continuous very light handrail support, when compared to no handrail support. Heart rates were reduced by 4.5 percent during continuous light support, and by 1.2 percent during continuous very light hand support.
At 33 steps per minute, the average oxygen uptake was reduced by 6 percent during continuous light hand support and by 4 percent during continuous very light hand support. Average heart rate was reduced by nearly 5 percent during continuous light hand support, and by 2.5 percent during very light hand support.
When keeping their hands off the rails during the 25 steps-per-minute sessions, the women reached an average of 65 percent of their maximal oxygen uptake. At 33 steps per minute with hands off, women reached an average of 74 percent of their maximal oxygen uptake.
"One reason for exercising is to increase the body's efficiency in using oxygen and to increase cardiovascular endurance and strength," said Linda Bernhard, a study co-author and an associate professor of adult health and illness at Ohio State. "This research suggests that women who rely on the machine's handrails won't get the maximum desired effect."
While using the handrails once in a while to regain balance is fine, women should be aware that when they continuously touch the rails, they lessen their workout effectiveness.
"For one, the console on the machine tells an exerciser how many calories she's burned, and that figure is based on not using the handrails," Christman said.
Christman and Bernhard co-wrote the study with David Frid, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Ohio State; G. Lynn Mitchell, a statistician in the School of Public Health at Ohio State; Anne Fish, of the Barnes College of Nursing at the University of St. Louis; and Barbara Smith, a professor of nursing at the University of Alabama.
The StairMaster Sports/Medicine Products company provided the step treadmill for use in this study. Ohio State's College of Nursing funded the study.