How Stairs Can Improve Public Health
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How Stairs Can Improve Public Health

Boston commits to climbing higher.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

In a city that is constantly evolving, Torontonians spend an awful lot of time standing still. We sit at desks or behind the wheel, we wait in line, and we hang onto handrails as we ride the TTC. Although urban dwellers are often in transit, we are rarely in motion.

Statistics Canada suggests that Canadians are increasingly inactive and spend an average of 69 per cent of waking hours doing sedentary activities. Facing similar statistics south of the border, the City of Boston launched a public health campaign in 2008 to encourage physical activity by increasing stair use.

Take the Stairs provides participating organizations with signs and introductory resources. The aim is to shift people’s thinking at the moment when they are deciding whether to take the elevator.

To date, more than 60 workplaces in Boston have gotten involved and put up posters in both English and Spanish. Prominent participants include Harvard’s School of Public Health, which runs an annual competition on campus.

As well as appealing to community partners, Boston’s commitment to improving public health by promoting physical activity draws on federal priorities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s StairWELL to Better Health provides information about the advantages of stair use and tips on how to change habits.

So, what are the benefits of taking the stairs? From an individual perspective, climbing the stairs burns seven times as many calories as waiting in the elevator. Put another way, a trip up four flights of stairs is the equivalent of a 10-minute walk. Taking the stairs is also an environmentally friendly choice since elevators account for up to 10 per cent of a building’s energy use.

Like Boston’s Take the Stairs, Toronto Public Health’s Rediscover the Stairs [PDF] focuses on stairwells at offices and other workplaces. The idea is that stairs offer a free source of physical activity that busy people can integrate into their day. It’s an appealing option for anyone who isn’t looking for a celebrity-endorsed gym.

In fact, Rediscover the Stairs started with a six-week campaign in partnership with the TTC when it first launched in 2014. Posters were placed at subway stations to highlight the reasons for taking the stairs in the course of a commute.

Although there is no denying that climbing can contribute to improved health outcomes, the TTC campaign made a virtue of necessity. Between escalator breakdowns and yet-to-be-installed elevators, stairs are too often the only option for commuters taking the subway.

With elevators at 34 of 69 stations, the majority of the system is inaccessible for people with disabilities or anyone, from young children to seniors, for whom multiple flights of stairs represent a barrier rather than a fitness opportunity.

Rediscover the Stairs posters have long since been replaced at TTC stations, but the program continues and has been implemented in at least 40 workplaces across the city. Information about Rediscover the Stairs now lives on activeTO, a new website by Toronto Public Health.

At workplaces, unlike in the subway, people typically have a choice of whether to wait for the elevator or find the nearest flight of stairs. Lyndsey Matsumura, health promotion specialist with Toronto Public Health, says that location is one of the biggest factors that prevent people from taking the stairs. She explains that posters “get them to realize ‘Oh, this is an option.’”

In many participating buildings, signs push people to look for the stairs, especially if they are unfamiliar with their surroundings. For instance, Rediscover the Stairs signage has been put up at four City of Toronto facilities. In each case, the buildings were chosen based on ease of public access to the stairs.

But inviting climbing requires more than well-placed posters and water-cooler conversations. There are design challenges that discourage stair use. An American study found that low-cost interventions can make stairwells safer and more attractive.

The research indicated that simple measures like adding paint and carpeting to stairwells in office buildings significantly increase positive perceptions and active uses of the space. Matsumura adds that poor lighting is another common culprit, so maintenance of stairs is important to “make it more enticing for people to use them.”

Rediscover the Stairs offers an opportunity to rethink physical activity but also questions the ways that everyday spaces like stairs present benefits to some and barriers to others. Healthy cities encourage affordable approaches to active living and ensure accessibility for all.