Advice for Making the Most of the WSJ Fitness Challenge

The response to the first-ever Wall Street Journal Fitness Challenge has been enthusiastic. Since its Jan. 19 launch, tens of thousands of readers have signed up for the six-week program. Haven’t signed up yet? You can join here.

A number of readers wrote in to ask if we could review the basics of the program. Here they are in a nutshell:

After signing up, you receive a welcome newsletter asking you to test in by seeing how many steps you can take up and down in 20 seconds, leading with your right foot and then your left foot. Up, up, down, down counts as one step. For an idea on what it should look like, check out this video.

Veteran NBA sports performance coach Arnie Kander shows how to measure and complete a timed step-up routine.
What Can Be Used as a Step?

Arnie Kander,

the NBA sports performance coach who developed the workout, suggests using a step around 7 inches in height. One reader wrote in saying the stairs in her home are 8 inches high, too high for her knees. “Does this mean I have to invest in a step platform?” she asks.


Jon Krause

Seven inches is what Mr. Kander suggests for a baseline height, but if that feels challenging, go lower. Anything that raises you off the ground and is stable will work, including a sidewalk curb or a low step stool. A lower height might skew your step count compared with other participants, but this program is about improving your movement patterns more than trying to beat other step counts.

“You should use a step that is comfortable and where you feel you have control and balance while performing the movement,” Mr. Kander says. “In physical-therapy sessions I start clients on a 2-inch step and progress higher.”

How Often Should I Do the Workout?

After testing in, you’ll receive an email each week for six weeks with a new workout aimed at improving your number of steps. Mr. Kander suggests doing one to three circuits of the exercises and performing each week’s workout two to three times a week. A number of readers noted they were feeling sore after Week One. “It’s important to be mindful of your entry fitness level,” Mr. Kander says. “Have you been training your legs or doing anything with faster movements? Have you been working on balance?” If the answer is no, you should start with one round of the exercises once a week and gradually increase from there.

“The goal is to stay connected to what feels comfortable, not just going fast to go fast,” Mr. Kander says. A good indicator of controlled technique is your hands, he says. “If your hands are moving in a chaotic way while you step, the movement might be fast but it’s lacking fluidity and control,” he says.

What’s the Best Way to Cool Down at the End?

Here’s a video of Mr. Kander explaining his recommended cooldown:

Arnie Kander provides a breakdown of how to end each week of the Journal’s fitness routine. Photo: Daniel Brenner

Our Experts Weigh In on Your Questions

My step count was way higher leading with one foot versus the other. Is that normal?

“Just like our arms, we tend to have a dominant leg that tends to be a little stronger because we use it a bit more,” says

Michael Rogers,

a professor in human performance studies at Wichita State University. “This may be the one you kick a ball with, use to take your first step when walking and climbing stairs, or feel more confident on when you balance on one leg.” He suggests leading with the non-dominant foot during workouts and focus on using it more during the day. “Over time, it will get stronger and you will notice less of a difference.”

I’m 92, use a cane and struggle with balance. Should I participate?

“Anyone with balance issues can apply these simple modifications for the step challenge,” says

Miriam Morey,

a professor of medicine who specializes in exercise and aging at Duke University. Position your step between a wall and the back of a chair so that you can hold on while you are stepping. “It might be easy to do this on the bottom step of a staircase if you have stairs at home. You can step up and down off the first step while holding on the wall on one side and banister on the other.”

The challenge encourages speed. “But with balance issues it would be best to emphasize good form while you slowly step up and down off the stair,” she says. For the other exercises that use a step in the workout, adapt your positioning so that you are always holding on to the arm of a chair, banister or wall, Dr. Morey says. “Over time, as you improve, you can use your hands to a lesser degree and gradually increase your pace,” she says.

John Coalson,

a 73-year-old retiree in Arlington, Texas, had a total knee replacement in 2006 and asked if he should be cautious with leg exercises.

“I would highly encourage exercise so that you maintain good strength and mobility,” Dr. Morey says. “The only cautionary note would be not to perform exercises that cause you pain. Modify or reduce range of motion so you can exercise pain-free.”

If squats are challenging, Dr. Morey suggests performing chair stands, where you sit, then rise and lower from a chair with your arms on your chest. “This is one of the best exercises to strengthen your legs,” she says. “If that causes discomfort, place a cushion on the chair to decrease range of movement.”

Margaret McNamara,

61, a health-care IT worker in Alameda, Calif., had surgery on her left foot in December and wonders if she can participate while attending physical therapy.

“If you are working around an injury, the most important thing to focus on is making sure you don’t aggravate the injury to avoid re-injury or other setbacks,” says

Andrew Jagim,

director of sports medicine research at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis. “Consult with your physician or physical therapist for specific do’s and don’ts. If you find step-ups to be too challenging or painful, hold on to a chair for support or ditch the actual step and cross over a line on flat ground. The key will be to find an exercise that targets similar muscle groups by incorporating similar movements.”

Marianna Beigel,

69, of Naples, N.Y., asks if it is as effective to do the workout spaced throughout the day instead of three sets all at once.

“Yes, you can exercise for any length of time and gain benefits,” Dr. Rogers says. “You may not be able to spend 30 minutes at one time, but don’t use that as an excuse to not do the workout. Do five minutes here, 10 minutes there. Just work your way up to 30 minutes during the day.”

Shout Out to Some of Our Challengers

Mike Burchett

, 65, retired, Sacramento, Calif., 16 right, 16 left
Katherine Harris

, 55, principal scientist at Abt Associates, Potomac, Md., 15 right, 16 left
Heather McKee

, 60, electrical engineer, Denver, 15 right, 14 left
Jennifer Cahill

, 62, HR manager, Mission Vallejo, Calif., 18 right, 15 left
Anand Natarajan
, 47, energy manager, Cleveland, 21 right, 19, left

Jeff Totaro

, 67, retired engineer and Army officer, Richardson, Texas, 14 right, 14 left

Nancy Hoxsie Mead

, 70, retired, Narragansett, R.I., 17 right, 20 left

Tristan Scoffield

, 22, university student, Vienna, Va., 30 right, 31 left

Michele Harris

, 56, best practices director at a tech company, Vienna, Va., 21 right, 24 left

Barbara Read

, 67, retired, Alturas, Calif., 16 right, 18 left

Robin O’Leary, 36, performance rock climbing coach, Boulder, Colo., 34 right, 29 left

Mary Arenzi

, 65, oncology nurse, Cape Cod, Mass., 17 right, 16 left

Al Giorgi

, 71, part-time environmental consultant, Lopez Island, Wash., 14 right, 13 left

Jesse Dufton, 35, rock climber, Loughborough, England, 31 right

Alex Puccio, 31, professional climber, Boulder, Colo., 34.5 right, 29 left

Martin Heald

, 29, amputee and paraclimber, Kirkham, England, 31 right

Ron Mosher

, 77, retired, Laguna Niguel, Calif., 16 right, 15 left

Todd Eldredge, 49, former Olympic figure skater, Irvine, Calif., 33 right

Larry Lobl

, 82, retired, Pittsburgh, 20 right, 20 left

Philip M. DeCicco

, 55, unemployed, Cedar Grove, N.J., 24 right, 19 left

Note: By participating in this workout challenge, you acknowledge that the workout could be strenuous. You should consult a physician before proceeding.

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Anna C. Knight

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