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Fitness at Your Feet

WebMD Feature

Nov. 12, 2001 -- Do it. Just do it. Forget the elevator. Take the stairs. You'll lose a few pounds, ward off a heart attack, and feel better for the effort. The problem is, most office stairways are less than inviting. They're cold, gray, bleak at best.


This is a Cinderella story, a story of an ugly little stairway that's now getting more action than ever before -- a makeover for the stairs, you might say. Quite possibly, it's also a new trend in employee fitness programs.


What could be more practical?


"Every office building has them, they're free, you don't have to change your clothes to use them," says Nicole Kerr, MPH, with the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.


And there's no question that stairway exercise is good for you.


"Stair climbing has all sorts of benefits," she says. "The body responds to moderate physical activity in ways that have important positive effects -- it reduces heart disease, [high blood pressure], cancer, diabetes, depression, and anxiety."

Piloting the Concept

At the CDC, Kerr is conducting a research project of "stairway makeovers" and their effects on exercise behavior. She's transformed a six-flight stairway in her own office building. It's nearly a page in House Beautiful, with pretty paint on the walls, carpeting, and inexpensive but colorful artwork. Soon, there will also be a music sound system, she says.


Infrared "counters" at every flight are keeping track of traffic. "We saw a 14% increase in traffic that first year," she says. "That's fantastic."


"Even walking down the stairs helps," Kerr points out. "You get some cardiovascular benefits; it's not great, but it's something. And it's weight-bearing exercise, good for osteoporosis prevention."


Employees at her company regularly took the elevator "just to go one flight up, two flights down -- that kind of thing," says Betty Woods, RN, an occupational health nurse at North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company in Durham.


But no more, says Woods. On floors one through six, paint went onto the accent walls -- fuschia, "Duke blue," canary yellow, "in-between green" -- plus nice carpet and bright lighting. Artwork is by noted artist Ernie Banks, a Durham native.


Numbers of stairway users have more than doubled -- from 1,300 before renovation to 3,500 in the first month or two, says Kristin Goff, cardiovascular coordinator for Wake County's Human Services/Health Promotion Division. She oversees the company's cardiovascular wellness program and is monitoring the stairway program's progress.


"We wanted a practical program for these employees, and it looks like it's working," Goff tells WebMD. "We're seeing some good results. We knew if we made the stairwell appealing to people and promoted it, we would see a significant increase in people using the stairs ... A lot of people going from the third to the fifth floor were using the elevators. We knew it was out of habit."


Robin Rankin is one of the "stairway converts." Not that she's overweight -- "just solid, more muscle than fat," she says. "But after you reach a certain age, you've got to watch it."


Rankin eats right, hits the treadmill, does sit-ups. She even took part in a Duke University study of the Atkins diet. Still, she didn't use the stairs at work -- she took the elevator like everybody else.


But now she does.


"It's fitness," she says. "It's something you can easily work into the day. Besides, it's faster than the elevators."

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