YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Stairs Offer Exercise Boost, So Be Sure Not to Miss Your Flight

Fitness * Public health experts, some employers urge lifestyle changes-- like avoiding elevators-- to increase activity in a couch-potato world.


One of the world's best exercise devices is free, easy to use and readily available--in fact, you probably have it in your home and workplace.

It's a flight of stairs, and lifting your body against gravity to climb steps is one of the best exercises you can do for your heart, muscles and bones. In a "no time for exercise" age, the steps all around us provide an ever-present way to fit physical activity into daily life.

Yet most people avoid them. Given the choice between riding an escalator or climbing an adjacent flight of stairs, 95% of the people observed by researchers from Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore chose the path of least physical effort. This finding confirmed conclusions of a classic study by Yale University obesity expert Kelly Brownell, who also discovered that he could triple the slim percentage of stair climbers by posting a sign that read: "Your heart needs the exercise, here's your chance!"

We live in a "toxic physical activity environment," says Brownell, who contends that America's obesity epidemic results in part from living in a culture in which moving walkways, automatic doors, remote controls and other conveniences make it less necessary--or possible--to move our bodies throughout the day. "Most people don't realize how little physical activity they actually get," he says, "and how important it is to use every opportunity they have to be active."

Lifestyle activity--such as choosing stairs over elevators--is increasingly being urged by public health experts, who point to mounting evidence that small amounts of exercise accumulated throughout the day can provide significant health benefits. For example, the Harvard Alumni Health Study examined the lifestyle habits of more than 11,000 men and found that those who climbed at least 20 floors per week had about a 20% lower risk of stroke and of death from all causes during the study period, according to I-Min Lee, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.


Encouraging employees to take the stairs is becoming a popular strategy at work-site wellness programs around the country, including the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where signs are posted near elevators throughout the campus urging people to climb steps instead.

"NIH is full of very busy people, and we're trying to remind them that little bits of exercise can be incorporated into even the busiest day," says Susanne Strickland, who helped launch NIH's "take the stairs" campaign in 1998 when she was director of the institute's work-site health-promotion program.

A health-promotion committee developed a variety of whimsical slogans for the signs including:

"Why weight for an elevator, take steps to save time and burn calories."

"Burn some stress, take the stairs."

"Bone up to good health, climb the stairs."

The campaign has generated extensive positive feedback, although there has been no effort made to measure any increase in stair use, says Strickland, a registered dietitian and self-proclaimed "perpetual stair climber."


"It wasn't a research project, but a way to alert people to a free fitness opportunity," she says. "It always amazes me that people will stand there and wait for an elevator to go to the fitness center and use the stair climber. The signs help people recognize that exercise doesn't only have to happen at the gym."

For Anne Decker, 57, a public affairs specialist at the National Institute on Aging, climbing eight flights each morning to get to her office, plus several flights throughout the day, is her main form of exercise. "It's one of the few chances I have during the day to do something physical," says Decker, whose doctor encouraged her to start climbing stairs two years ago when test results showed she had low bone density.

"At first I couldn't do eight flights and had to take the elevator partway," she recalls. "Then I'd do a few flights, go get a drink of water, then do a few more flights. It took about a month before I could climb all eight flights without a break." Although she admits "it's still an effort to make that climb--especially since I'm always carrying heavy bags--it's really improved my stamina, and it makes me feel good to do it."

For those who want a more intense workout, continuous stair climbing can be an effective way to build lower body strength and cardiovascular endurance. One of the most popular exercise trends of the last decade, step aerobics, is based on going up and down a step for 30 to 60 minutes. And one of the most popular exercise machines during that same time period, the stair climber, relies on this same motion.

Los Angeles Times Articles