In 1981, mechanical engineer Richard Charnitski, who saw that climbing a ladder was good aerobic exercise, labored in his garage to assemble a device that allowed the user to climb and do upper-body exercises at the same time.
“For the first three years, the machine, known as VersaClimber, was considered a weird contraption,” said Charnitski, president of Costa Mesa-based Heart Rate Inc. Since then, however, the company has grown every year. It expanded from a garage operation into a 40-employee firm with sales of more than $4.5 million a year.
The growth of Heart Rate illustrates the boom in exercise machines generally referred to as stair climbers because they are based on the climbing/stepping concept.
Consumer surveys conducted by the National Sporting Goods Assn. show that retail sales of stair climbers were worth $57.5 million last year, compared to $46 million in 1988. “We started surveys of stair climbers only two years ago,” said Dan Kasen, the association’s information specialist.
At the wholesale level, some $70 million worth of the machines were sold last year, compared to $25 million the previous year, according to Sebastian Dicasoli of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn., another trade group. He based his estimate on surveys of the “dozen or so companies” making stair climbers.
Most manufacturers sell the bulk of their stair climbers to health clubs and fitness centers.
“Stair climbers are now essential equipment,” said Joel Aschendorf, general manager of the Sports Connection Beverly Hills fitness club. “A lot of people come in and ask for stair climbers. If you don’t have them, they won’t consider your club as an option.”
“Just like stationary bikes, treadmills and progressive resistance equipment, stair climbers are definitely not a fad,” said Ralph Cissne, spokesman for Stairmaster Exercise Systems of Oklahoma, which introduced the StairMaster in 1986. Cissne declined to discuss sales figures.
Why are the machines so popular?
“They are based on an old form of exercise but give a better workout,” said Donna Olden, operations manager at Irvine-based Tectrix Fitness Equipment, manufacturer of the ClimbMax. When the company introduced ClimbMax last year, response was “incredible,” she said, with close to 2,000 units sold so far, both in the United States and overseas. Sales are expected to hit $2.5 million this year.
Running up and down stairs has long been a form of athletic conditioning, but it can give your legs a pounding. Charnitski of Heart Rate said the average person finds it more comfortable to use climbing machines, which give them non-traumatic aerobic exercise.
According to Cal State Northridge studies on the StairMaster, a person can get a complete cardiovascular workout in 15 to 20 minutes. Working out on the machine is as beneficial as running or jogging but without the high injury rate runners may suffer.
But stair climbers don’t come cheap. Most cost from $1,000 to $4,000.
That’s why Richard Boggs, president of Sports Step Inc., believes that his company’s product, which he describes as “just a variation of the climbing machine, except that there’s no motor,” is selling well. “For $100, people can do virtually the same thing” with the Step as with stair climbing machines, he said.
The Step, which consists of a platform and additional blocks for changing its height, was shipped early this year to health clubs and individual buyers. It sells for close to $100 and comes with a training video. The platforms are being made in three locations in the United States, including Ontario. The three plants together make about 50,000 platforms a month.
U.S. sales are expected to reach $12 million to $15 million this year. With booming demand and exports, the Atlanta-based company is forecasting $50 million to $75 million in sales next year. Sports Step Inc. has two licensees overseas--one in Japan that covers Pacific Rim countries and another in Europe for the European market.
“We’re now in 40 countries,” said Boggs. He estimates that the total market for the platforms could be 5 million to 10 million units, worth $250 million to $500 million. The company plans to introduce by January a home model--Step II--which will retail for $49.
The Step is used by footwear maker Reebok International in an aerobic exercise program known as the Step Reebok, described as “low impact, high intensity.” Testing done on step training by Lorna and Peter Francis of San Diego State University has shown that the exercise creates the intensity of running at a 7-mile-an-hour pace with the impact of walking. Said Boggs: “It’s close to the ideal exercise and can be done in health clubs or at home. It’s very safe; any man or woman can do it.”
Reebok will introduce in May of next year a line of shoes and complementary apparel for those who take up stepping/climbing exercises. Mimi George, marketing communications manager at Reebok International, said one of the reasons why Reebok developed the “very flexible and lightweight” new shoe is that “there’s a trend towards the use of stair climbers.”
Stair climbers are “going to be an expanding market,” predicted Heart Rate’s Charnitski. “The challenge is to get the couch potatoes to try it.”
Cissne of Stairmaster believes that as baby boomers age, they will opt for stair climbers, being less inclined to run because of stress on the feet.
Greer Bosworth, who has been using StairMaster on and off for about a year and is attending Step Reebok classes, agrees that “there’s not as much impact on the knees and ankles” in both forms of exercises. A former high school athlete, the 37-year-old lawyer was previously into running and high-impact aerobics. “Before you turn 30, you don’t think there’s any difference (in various forms of exercises), but once you hit 30, your body rejects the jumping up and down,” he said.