A SPOT THAT once sent movie-goers squirming in their seats now ranks as a destination for a demanding workout. Georgetown's "Exorcist steps" draw local crew teams, personal trainers and others looking to work their leg muscles without a trip to the gym.
"It's a good way to get out of the gym and get outside," says 28-year-old Tommy Tomlo after running up and down the 75 steep steps a handful of times, one-third of the way to his goal of 18 flights in 25 minutes. "I can't stand to be on a treadmill -- I feel like a gerbil running in place." Three days a week, he and two other friends venture to this set of steps, where a young priest met his demise in the 1973 movie "The Exorcist." Located at 36th and Prospect streets, the flight descends sharply to a service station parking lot on M Street across from Key Bridge. It casts an ominous feel from the base looking up, but, at the top, it teems with Georgetown students and workers, plus a steady stream of exercisers. For a rigorous stair-stepping workout, "this is the best spot," Tomlo says.
But it's hardly the only one in town. Washington is filled with interesting places to tone thighs, calves and hips while getting your heart rate up. So when the weather cooperates, forget staring at the gym walls from a StairMaster, explore some scenic steps outside. You may even discover a more challenging workout.
"On the stairs, you're actually propelling your body weight up a flight of stairs," says Francisco Semiao, a certified personal trainer and consultant with the George Washington University Medical Center. "On a StairMaster, you're just keeping your body from sinking at a predetermined setting," he says. Walking on real stairs "simulates motion that we do in everyday life and allows us to condition those movements so they become easy." He notes that you burn twice as many calories on the way up a set of stairs as on the way down because "you're working against gravity on the way up, so there's more resistance."
Metro escalators are another exercise option. They get many walkers on the left huffing and puffing in a hurry -- unless they have been using them as a workout booster. For stamina building, it's tough to beat the Red Line, with four of Metro's five deepest stations. The Wheaton stop sinks the lowest -- and climbs the longest. Its escalator travels 230 feet on a 30-degree slope, rising 115 feet above the ground. The trip takes about three minutes when standing on a moving escalator, but if you push your gluteus to the maximus, you can cut the time in half. Three other Metro stations rise more than 100 vertical feet: Bethesda (106), Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan (102) and Medical Center (101). The Rosslyn station on the Orange and Blue lines rounds out the five deepest stations with a vertical rise of 97 feet.
For a more picturesque workout, head to the west end of the Mall, where nearly 60 steps lead from the Reflecting Pool to a seated Abraham Lincoln. On hot days, serious exercisers savor a dose of cool, shady air inside this monument to the 16th president, which offers a distant view of the new National World War II Memorial. To continue with another flight of footwork, venture a couple of blocks behind the Lincoln Memorial to Ohio Drive, where you will find an expansive set of 41 steps just north of Memorial Bridge. This cascading stairway, which now ends just shy of Rock Creek Parkway, is a portion of the original "Water Gate." Built in the 1800s, it welcomed dignitaries traveling by boat to the nation's capital.
For a chance to see modern-day dignitaries while working out, head to the other end of the Mall. The West Front of the U.S. Capitol (facing the Lincoln Memorial) actually has a pair of grand staircases with more than 80 steps apiece. They once offered the most power-laden stair-stepping experience and some of the most dramatic city vistas. Unfortunately, only the first 26 steps are open to the public because of post-Sept. 11, 2001, security restrictions.
Two other powerful flights of fancy remain accessible nearby. The broad scale of the marble stairs leading to the U.S. Supreme Court's 13-ton bronze doors can get the heart beating faster without taking a single step. It can take several up-and-down trips -- 44 steps each way -- to catch even a portion of the symbolism built into this grand structure. Try to identify the nine allegorical figures above the entrance or understand the significance of the eight panels on the gargantuan doors (the Supreme Court's Web site, www.supremecourtus.gov, provides all the details). While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss the 44 steps next door at the Italian Renaissance-styled Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Stairways flank either side of the Neptune Fountain, with its spraying turtles and snakes, and unite a couple of flights up.
Don't overlook Washington's most extensive stair-stepping workout within the neoclassic Meridian Hill Park. The lower half of this 12-acre urban respite is a stair-stepper's paradise with four symmetrical staircases -- each with nearly 100 steps. They parallel a 13-level staircase fountain, the longest of its kind, and even more dramatic when the flowing water returns in the next few weeks. Each staircase offers its own surprise: a memorial to president James Buchanan here, a sculpture of Dante there and amazing city views from just about everywhere. With workouts like this, who needs the gym?
Here's where to find some of the most picturesque step workouts in Washington.
"THE EXORCIST" STEPS -- 36th and Prospect streets NW.
METRO ESCALATORS -- For more information about specific Metro stations, visit www.wmata.com or call 202-637-7000. Wheaton Metro Station, Georgia Avenue at Reedie Drive. Bethesda Metro Station, west side of Wisconsin Avenue at Montgomery Lane. Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro Station, southwest corner Connecticut Avenue and 24th Street NW, southwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and Woodley Road. Medical Center Metro Station, southwest corner of Rockville Pike and South Drive. Rosslyn Metro Station, east side of North Moore Street and Wilson Boulevard and east side of Fort Myer Drive between 19th Street and Wilson Boulevard.
LINCOLN MEMORIAL -- West end of the Mall. 202-426-6841. www.nps.gov/linc.
WATER GATE -- North of Memorial Bridge and west of 23rd Street along Ohio Drive.
U.S. CAPITOL -- East end of the Mall. 202-224-3121. www.aoc.gov.
U.S. SUPREME COURT -- First and Maryland streets NE. 202-479-3211. www.supremecourtus.gov.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- First and Independence streets NE. 202-707-8000. www.loc.gov.
MERIDIAN HILL PARK -- Bordered by 15th, 16th, Euclid and W streets NW. www.nps.gov/mehi. Managed by Rock Creek Park: 202-895-6000.