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."
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."
Is Your Company Interested?
Stairway makeovers are all about helping people break out of bad habits, Kerr tells WebMD. "It's a win-win situation for employers. There's lot of research showing that if you have healthy employees, your productivity level will go up, your absentee level will go down. And it doesn't have to cost much. It can be as cheap or expensive as you want."
"Some people say we're just redecorating and that it doesn't make any difference," she says. "But it does. Environment is important to people, in terms of attitude and motivation."
If you're thinking about taking on a few flights a day, there are a few advisories.
"If you're overweight, you are living with risk factors for heart disease," says Goff. "The goal is to get started moving. Research shows that if you go from doing nothing to doing something, the health benefits increase."
Start small -- one flight of stairs in one trip, she says. "If you feel like you can make it up without being short of breath or fatigued, that's a good sign. Try additional flights."
If you have a chronic condition like arthritis, check with your doctor as far as the amount of activity you should get. "But with most chronic diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, and high blood pressure, exercise only helps," says Goff.
"We're talking about a lifestyle change," she says. "This is a way to add extra physical activity to your day. You don't have to go to the gym to do it. You just incorporate into your day."
To make changes in your office building, talk to the company's wellness program coordinator (if there is one), a human resources representative, and/or the facilities design staff member.
Or call Goff for consultation first, if you wish.
"I'd be happy to help them through the process, about what we did at North Carolina Mutual," she says. "When we presented the idea, [the CEO] was excited about it. He really wanted the best for his employees. I think he knew that healthy employees make for healthy workers. He was definitely key in making this happen."