How can I convince my friend to use the stairs?

by James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

As someone who is interested in green living, you are no doubt aware of the benefits of indoor and outdoor walking–both for people and for the Earth. So it is likely that, whenever you find yourself inside a multistory building, you consciously choose to use the stairs, rather than the elevator or escalator…(wink). But, let’s imagine you have a friend who never takes the stairs whenever he can ride to the floor of his destination. How can you convince him to walk between floors? In this article, we will share some scientific research findings that you could use in your attempts to persuade him. Peer-to-peer informal education can be a powerful tool for changing behavior.

Talking Point 1:  Choosing to use stairs is a personal health investment decision

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Missouri conducted two different studies in Copenhagen, Denmark. These were published in the well-respected Journal of the American Medical Association. In the first study, participants were asked to reduce the number of footsteps they took each day from 6,000 to 1,400 for a time-span of three weeks. Instead of walking or taking the stairs, participants were instructed to use motorized transportation (such as a car, bus, escalator, or elevator) in every situation possible. The second study asked participants who were initially more active, averaging 10,000 steps per day, to reduce their activity to 1,400 steps per day for two weeks.

A Chinese wrought iron stairway Image credit: image.made-in-china.com

To establish a basis of comparison for our readers, the number of steps the average American adult takes per day is about 7,500, although Americans who are inactive typically take about 2,100 steps each day. Blood tests after each intervention of reduced stepping revealed that subjects experienced accumulation of dangerous abdominal fat, while also developing elevated blood-lipids–a warning sign of pre-diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The studies’ implications are that if you choose passive modes of transport and abstain from routine exercise, then your risk of chronic diseases is likely to increase dramatically. The researchers also found that their subjects’ total skeletal and muscle mass in the body decreased when activity decreased. Thus, stair walking has the potential to improve health, longevity, and physical fitness.

Talking Point 2.  “Step away” from being labeled sedentary

A study published In the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise tracked the steps of 1,136 adults around the United States who wore pedometers for two days. The results were compared to similar pedometer studies in Switzerland, Australia, and Japan. The data collected showed that Americans, on average, took 5,117 steps a day– far short of the averages in western Australia (9,695 steps), Switzerland(9,650 steps) and Japan (7,168 steps). The US fitness gap detected by the pedometer studies is equal to about 30 to 40 minutes of brisk walking per day. One mile of walking encompasses about 2,000 steps, those researchers say. The health community typically urges people to take at least 10,000 steps a day to maintain good health–which is equal to about five miles of walking.

Example of a step counter made in China - Image: okokchina.com

Interestingly, being single was correlated with taking more steps. Single people in the study averaged 6,076 daily steps, compared with 4,793 steps for married people. Widowed participants moved the least, averaging 3,394 daily steps. The step-deficit problem isn’t just an issue in the United States. Big city living, especially in a hot climate tends to lower the inhabitants’ average steps per day.

Singaporean sports conditioning specialist, Jonathan Wong, has noted that “currently, the average sedentary person living in an urban setting takes 900 to 3,000 steps a day.” If your non-stair-walking friend wishes to avoid the precarious health status label of sedentary, he needs to know that persons are considered sedentary if they move less than 5,000 steps per day. Notably, the countries that reported high average daily steps also have lower obesity rates. In early 2011, Singapore’s  Health Promotion Board (HPB) revealed that the obesity rate in Singapore has increased to 10.8 per cent, up from 6.9 per cent in 2004.

Talking Point 3.  Previous generations walked more than we do  

In bygone days, taking an elevator was considered a luxury, because major stairways between floors of tall buildings were the norm and the wait-time for elevators in a multistory building was substantial. Nobody who was just going up or down one or two floors used an elevator. In that time period, everyone in society walked—a lot. In the US, Amish rural communities are known for their simple living, plain clothing, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. Their anachronistic lifestyle can serve as a proxy for that of past, less technological, more muscle-powered generations.

Amish barn raising that uses only hand tools - Image Credit: BuildingGreen.com

A 2004 study used pedometers to study movement among adults in Amish farming communities. That study found that Amish men took on average, more than 18,000 steps a day, and Amish women averaged more than 14,000 steps a day—at least three times more steps than is typical today!  If we use these Amish as a proxy for members of a mid-19th-century farming society, it suggests that there has been a tremendous decline in the last century-and-a-half in the amount of walking people do. We know that a 150-pound person can burn 274 calories simply by walking 30 minutes—this has not changed. In view of walking’s historical decline, consider this: Has caloric intake declined by 66% in parallel with today’s less active lifestyle’s energy requirements?  If not, the mismatch is sure to have health consequences.

Image Credit: paintings.gandhiserve.org/

Mahatma Gandhi walked—240 miles, in one instance. His famous 1930 salt march helped free India from British control. Johnny Appleseed walked—planting apple tree nurseries as he journeyed across the Midwest, and he is admired for it by countless US school children to this very day. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walked—his 250,000-person “March on Washington” for jobs and civil rights will never be forgotten.  America’s most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist, John Muir, walked 1,000 mile—from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, choosing the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.” Marco Polo traveled through the Middle East, India, Asia, and China—it took him four years to walk across mountains and deserts to reach China!

“We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” said Professor and Kenyan Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai. How many trees did Wangari Maathai and her followers plant in Africa? More than 40 million. That took lots of walking to accomplish. In view of such inspiring examples, can any able-bodied person today legitimately say that he or she cannot “endure the hardship” of walking the stairs?  


Talking Point 4.  Don’t “go with the flow”

Human are “creatures of habit.” Olander and Eves studied elevator availability and its impact on stair use in a workplace. Their study investigated the impact of elevator availability, pedestrian traffic (number of persons using the elevator and stairs per minute), building occupancy (total individuals in the building) and time of day on stair ascent and descent within a multistory workplace. Stair and elevator choices were monitored by automatic counters on every day of the week. In a natural experiment, days with four available elevators were compared with days when three elevators were available. Stair use increased for three elevators compared to four. Increasing building occupancy was associated with increased stair use, while increasing pedestrian traffic and time of day were associated with reduced stair use. Increased stair use also reflected increased elevator waiting times. Being aware of such natural human tendencies allows one to compensate for them.

Talking Point 5.  Stair walking can help save the planet  

In an article entitled: What’s the greenest way to get to the second floor?, Rastogi (2010) compared energy usage of escalators and elevators. She noted that “a continuously running escalator of the kind you’d find in airports or subway stations—35 feet high with a 40 horsepower motor—would use around 60,000 kilowatt hours annually [which would require about 243 tons of coal to be burned]. For comparison’s sake, the average American home consumes 11,040 kilowatt hours in a year.” Escalators that are designed to stop running when nobody is riding on them save only a modest amount of electricity in many locations, due to the frequent start-up power required. These are, however,  not very common–due to liability issues because their motion is less predictable by the rider which can cause falls, and because people who see a stopped escalator tend to assume it’s broken.

NYC Building signage encouraging people to choose to use the stairs - Image Credit www.nyc.gov

Although concise data are hard to obtain from industry sources, escalators seem to be the bigger electricity users—particularly as buildings get taller—using about 30% more energy thn elevators. Plus, in multistory buildings, each floor needs both an “up” and a “down” escalator, which increases installation cost, compared to an elevator. The bigger an escalator is—the higher it rises and the wider its steps—the more energy it uses. Choices–stairs and escalators at the newest subway station in Singapore

Escalator in Singapore subway(MRT) station - Image Credit www.pxleyes.com

There’s a simple way for your friend to reduce his energy footprint on the way to becoming a full-time stairs user: Use the stairs on the way up, and ride the escalator on the way down. On an “up” escalator, each added passenger makes the motor work a little harder to pull the steps upward. But on a “down” escalator—whose motor is also located at the top of the unit—each additional passenger helps the motor do its job, thanks to the action of gravity. Escalators work best when moving  big throngs of people. That’s why they’re so common in subway stations, where you often have waves of people, all needing to exit at the same time. For multilevel locations with lighter pedestrian traffic, elevators come out ahead, because they can speedily move small groups of passengers in either direction using the same conveyance, yet use very little electricity when idle and have no increased resumed-start-up costs.

Elevators at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Singapore - Image Credit: Image credit: m5.paperblog.com

Although riding an elevator may be slightly better for the biosphere than taking an escalator, the bottom line is this—neither compares well with walking the stairs. The marginal cost of stair walking is near zero, and, arguably, negative–because of the significant health benefits typically gained—with almost no impact on natural resources, no increase in pollution, and almost no health risks.

Talking Point 6.  We can make stair walking more attractive to people

In their journal article: The Use of Prompts, Increased Accessibility, Visibility, and Aesthetics of the Stairwell to Promote Stair Use in a University Building,  researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands conducted a study to see whether increasing the attractiveness and accessibility of a stairway had an impact on stair use among students and employees of that university. A total of 21,786 observations were made. Findings revealed that total stair use increased significantly, by 8.2%, and that these effects remain stable over the 4-week post-intervention period. Stair use was found to be positively and continuously influenced by improving the stairway environment.

An interesting Singapore art museum stairway - Image Credit: http://www.designboom.com

Some of the main reasons people give for not taking the stairs is that they are unattractive, unpleasant, or unsafe. Making stairways more attractive is one of the easiest ways to encourage stair use. Recommended strategies with some evidence of success include:

  • Put up point-of-decision signage (e.g. “Consider Taking the Stairs” signs beside the elevator buttons) and post directional signage that points people to where the stairs are located.
  • Decorate and paint stairway walls; mount informative posters along stairways and use bright colors of wall paint.
  • Stairways with windows at intervals en route enable stair walkers to experience new and varying vistas.
  • Install a background music system in stairways to make walking a restorative interlude.
  • Increase and improve lighting along stairways–for both attractiveness and safety.
  • Ensure that stair surfaces are made of non-slip material. Provide edge-markers to allow people to see where stairs start and end (essential for the visually impaired).
  • Keep stairway doors to the floors unlocked—so no one can become trapped inside.
  • Add cameras/mirrors to stairways to increase personal safety.
  • Improve air circulation  along stairways to eliminate stagnant or musty odors.
  • Maintain stairways daily to ensure that any hazards on steps are promptly removed (e.g., litter, water, food residue).
  • Make stairways more accessible to all age groups and abilities by retrofitting them with easy-to-use door handles; easy-to-grip, secure handrails; and easy-swing/easy-shut doors to help ensure everyone will be comfortable taking the stairs

Talking Point 7. Research shows that stair walking pays big dividends

What are some other research-documented health benefits of stair walking?

  • Stair climbing is possible in many workplaces and requires no special equipment in order to participate (Canada’s Physical Activity Guide).
  • A significantly lower risk of mortality was indicated in studies where participants climbed more than 55 flights per week. (Paffenbarger &  associates. 1993).
  • Stair climbing increased leg power in the elderly and may help in reducing the risk of injury from any future walking falls (Allied Dunbar Survey, 1992).
  • Stair climbing was found to burn about 8-11 calories of energy per minute, which is quite high compared to other physical activities (Edwards, 1983).
  • Stair climbers tended to be more fit and have a higher aerobic capacity (Ilmarinen & associates, 1978).
  • Even two flights of stairs climbed per day were shown to lead to 6 pound  weight loss over one year (Brownell, Stunkard, & Albaum, 1980).
  • There was a strong association between stair climbing and increased bone density in post-menopausal women (Coupland & associates, 1999).
  • Stair climbing programs was shown to improve the amount of “good cholesterol” in the blood – raising HDL concentrations (Wallace & Neill, 2000).
  •  A research-based online stair-walking calorie counter can be accessed at this website here which allows your friend to input his weight, minutes spent stair climbing, and minutes descending stairs  to determine the total calories he burned. A person who burns 500 calories will lose 1 pound of body weight.
  • Researchers in Singapore found that more calories are burned while walking up a flight of stairs than going down. They compared the intensity of stair-climbing to that of jogging, and going down the stairs to walking at a brisk pace.

Talking Point 8.  Excuses can be overcome through friendly encouragement 

A study at the University of South Carolina found that it might be laziness, and not desire for efficiency that keeps people riding the elevator. After determining that “saving time” was the most popular reason for avoiding the stairs, researchers timed their own daily actions, both using the elevator and taking the stairs, several times a day for several days. They found that, when taking the stairs, they actually arrived at their destination more quickly than riding the elevator. The reason? The waiting time for the elevator exceeded its speed-of-transit advantage. America Walks is a coalition of North American advocacy groups dedicated to increasing and promoting the benefits of walking. Their oft-cited and carefully designed 2011 online study of more than 7,000 avid walkers found that the profile of frequent walkers is somewhat surprising. They tended to be found equally often among the youngest (18-24 year olds) and the oldest (65 and over) age categories. With respect to race and ethnicity, frequent walkers were disproportionately found among Asians (83%) and non-Hispanic whites (77.1%), rather than among either African-Americans or Hispanics. A higher-than-average number of walkers in urban areas were young and single. More  than half of the respondents who walk frequently (55.4%) said they walk by themselves. Both frequent and infrequent walkers were asked the extent to which they received encouragement to walk by family members and friends. Encouraging signs on the steps of a UK shopping mall stairway increased stair use.

Image Credit: cache.daylife.com

Here’s a popular video which shows how ‘fun‘ can be incorporated to make stair climbing a more pleasurable activity:

Video link here

The top reason America Walks survey participants cited for doing walking was “to maintain good health.” The second most important reason was that walking “helps me to feel calm and less stressed.” The third-ranked reason was “walking gives me more physical energy.” Significantly, there was a strong negative relationship between the frequency of walking and the number of illnesses. The more an individual walked, the fewer the number medical conditions he/she reported being afflicted with. This finding held true even when controlling for the age, sex, educational background of the individual and the economic status. A higher percentage of frequent walkers than infrequent walkers said they received “a great deal” of support for their walking habit. To us, this suggests that your efforts to convince your friend to begin taking the stairs stand a good chance of succeeding.  Good luck!


 About our Guest Writers:

DR. JAMES H. WANDERSEE — botanist, FLS, FAAAS–is the W.H. LeBlanc Alumni Association Professor of Biology Education in the College of Education at Louisiana State University and Chair of the Teaching Section of the Botanical Society of America. His website is EarthScholars.com

DR RENEE M. CLARY—geologist, FGS–is the Director of the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum and Assistant Professor of Geoscience Education in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University. Her website is EarthScholars.com


Further links you may be interested in:

EWTT: Why Laughter Is Good For You

By the  authors James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary on EWTT:

1. Have You Thrown Something Away Today?

2. Plant Blindness: What research says

3. The Bridge Between Ecological Knowledge and Green Living

4. Teach Me About Soil

5. A Green Lesson from Mumbai about Food Packaging 







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Posted by on Oct 31 2011. Filed under Energy, Health and Wellbeing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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