Solving National Weight Gain Three Flights at a Time

Just as cities become more aware of how urban planning can affect the activity levels of their residents (see How Active Does Your City Make You?), a new public health campaign in New York City is attempting to take back stair climbing in a vertiginous cityscape that has long favored the elevator. Architects and planners are claiming partial responsibility for making lives in the U.S. more sedentary, in the well-meaning but misguided interest of always making them easier. The two are not so well aligned anymore.

Health problems associated with sedentarism now trump concerns about convenience, and one emerging solution is to encourage people to simply start taking the stairs. New York, of course, with its cavernous subway transfer system and hostility to the automobile, is among the most active places in the U.S. One often cannot even exit to street level from its underground labyrinth without conquering multiple flights of steps.

Still, with a combination of thoughtful architectural planning and tasteful signage, city officials and private urban planners believe they can usher many more people away from inactivity by encouraging stair climbing. New York wants more steps, and more people to climb them, because of the research showing the health benefits of taking the stairs.

Walking up stairs (8 METs) burns nearly as many calories as running at 12:00 mile pace (8.3 METs). It is considered vigorous activity. In one study of 10,000 men, those who climbed 20 to 34 floors of stairs per week—about three to five a day—had a 29 percent reduction in their risk of stroke, independent of whether the subjects also exercised during their leisure time.

American adults gain weight, collectively, every year. On average, this amounts to about one pound per person annually. Researchers, calculating how many calories stair climbing burns, have concluded something perhaps even more dramatic than the 29 percent stroke risk reduction: If we each walked just two minutes more up stairs every day, we could entirely offset that average annual weight gain.

How do you get people to climb by choice? One way is a relatively new concept in building signage called stair prompts. NPR reports that the neon green posters New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been hanging in office buildings, “tap into two classic New York motivators: guilt and vanity. They read: 'Burn Calories, Not Electricity. Take the Stairs!'” So far the city has distributed 30,000 stair prompts in over 1,000 buildings.

The campaign is part of a bigger movement called active design that arguably began in New York. The idea was and is to build an environment that can help people expend energy and use architecture to promote health. In New York all new city buildings must consider active design strategies. The idea has caught on around the country. Awareness raising in offices across America will hopefully continue to lead to the small daily lifestyle changes that can make us individually and as a nation more fit and less stressed—what better place to start than at the office?

NPR, Morning Edition, Aug. 4, 2014, "One Step To Combat Obesity: Make Stairs More Attractive”

ACSM, Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide, 2011, https://sites.google.com/site/compendiumofphysicalactivities/Activity-Categories/walking

Stroke, 1998, Vol. 29, pp. 2049-2054, http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/29/10/2049.long

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