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An exercise on the rise: step aerobics

Remember Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? The sweating boxer was training for his big fight against Apollo Creed.

Yes, it was only the movies. But real coaches and athletic trainers have known for years that climbing steps is an effective way for people to get and stay in shape. The activity works all the major leg muscles and is as good for the cardiovascular system.

So it seems hard to believe that it has taken this long for a fitness company to reinvent the step.

"It does seem hard to believe," said Joni Taddie-Pitcock, one of the few instructors on the North Suncoast to teach "Step Aerobics." She holds classes six days a week at Richey Racquet Fitness Center in Port Richey.

"People are finding out that all the high-impact aerobics can be too much," the 31-year-old said. "Step training has come at a good time when aerobics are on the downslide."

Step aerobics is a low-impact, high-intensity exercise program that involves stepping up and down on a platform to the accompaniment of music.

"It's so simple that men like it," Taddie-Pitcock said jokingly. "What I mean is that step aerobics doesn't have a lot of complicated dance steps, so I get a lot of guys in my class. It's a great workout."

The step is a platform made of polyethylene and is shock absorbent. It has a non-skid top and is adjustable from 4 inches to 12 inches.

According to research published in 1990 by Reebok International Ltd., the energy expenditure of step training is almost the same as that of running at seven miles per hour, yet the impact forces on the feet are similar to forces exerted during walking.

Taddie-Pitcock, a certified instructor with the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America, said she used to do high-impact aerobics daily. But the wear and tear does take its toll.

Step training is extremely popular with older people, and people with bad knees and other ailments.

That group includes Taddie-Pitcock. In March 1989, she became paralyzed in her left leg and foot. The exact cause of the paralysis is not known, but Taddie-Pitcock did not give up aerobics, which she had taught for about 15 years. She came back and taught classes with a walker, then a cane. Now she just wears a brace and many new students don't notice the paralysis.

"For me, step training is great. I use just the platform (4 inches) and its perfect," she said. "Others can use higher steps for a harder workout."

The step first went on the market in January, but already the product is being used in 40 countries and 3,000 health clubs around the United States, according to Rich Boggs, president of Atlanta-based Sports Step Inc., manufacturers of the step. The step now sells for $84.95.

"I can't believe how fast it has took off," Boggs said. "We now manufacture the step in three different cities to keep up with the demand."

Boggs said the idea for the step originated with Gin Miller, an aerobics instructor in Atlanta. In 1986 she injured her knee. Miller's options were surgery or physical therapy. She chose the latter.

Her physical therapist suggested she step up and down on a milk crate as part of her rehabilitation exercises. Miller found it to be so beneficial that she incorporated the exercise into her aerobics class. It caught on faster than oat bran.

Miller's students used wooden boxes.

"But there were lots of problems," Boggs said. "You could get splinters, the box could tip over, you could slide off when you started to sweat or you could have problems with the height."

Boggs said he and Miller started talking about the concept of the step and they he thought about manufacturing them.

"We came up with the idea of big Leggo blocks," he said.

Taddie-Pitcock's old aerobic students say they enjoy the new workouts and the appeal of the step has attracted several new students.

"I hadn't taken an aerobics class for years," said Ginger Ramsey, 50, of New Port Richey. "But I was downstairs (at Richey Racquet) working in the exercise room and I heard them having so much fun upstairs. When I found out it was low-impact, I decided to try it. I can't do high-impact because I have had surgery on both knees."

Ramsey said step aerobics helped her lose 10 pounds and feel "very alive."

Connie Cadwell, 42, of New Port Richey, agreed: "Anybody can do it. You really burn a lot of calories without jumping up and down and hurting yourself. And it's fun."