By Kathryn Doyle
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Better access to stairs in office buildings - and prompts reminding people to use them - might encourage workers to get more exercise, a new study suggests.
That sort of access has already been shown to increase physical activity in places like subway stations and shopping malls.
The report also offers the first real evidence that having natural light in stairwells is important, as architects had suggested, according to a statement from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The health department's Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Tobacco Control conducted the study, which only included city employees.
"Adults spend a large portion of their life in their workplace, and having access to and incorporating physical activity into one's day can have a positive impact on health," the department's statement read.
Ryan Richard Ruff, director of the Research & Evaluation Unit at the health department, led the study. He and his coauthors analyzed assessments of 14 New York City buildings alongside physical activity surveys of their 1,300 total employees.
Before the study, small signs were placed at elevator call buttons and stairway entrances reminding employees to "burn calories, not electricity" by using the stairs.
The prompts included information about the benefits of taking the stairs, such as on personal health and the environment.
More than half of participants said they climbed at least one flight of stairs at work per day. Men and people who weighed less tended to take the stairs more often than women and heavier people.
Employees were about three times more likely to use stairs in buildings with stair prompts, the authors wrote in the journal Preventive Medicine.
Stairwells that had natural lighting and were visible from lobby entrances were also more frequently used than their darker or more distant counterparts.
People who worked on higher floors were less likely to take the stairs. The authors suggest a way around this by encouraging employees to take the stairs for at least part of the journey and take the elevator the rest of the way.
"These types of actions are necessary as today nearly 60 percent of NYC adults and 40 percent of school children are overweight or obese," according to the health department statement. "Regular physical activity and healthy eating are key factors in addressing the epidemic, and the scientific evidence now tells us that creating environments that support people in the behavior changes they are trying to make helps people to be successful at accomplishing these healthier behaviors."
Often people have access to stairs but don't choose to use them, Ruff and coauthor Karen Lee, a senior advisor in the health department's Division of Chronic Disease Prevention, said. Sometimes stairs are restricted for security reasons, but building security could incorporate keycard or code access to employee floors to get around the issue.
"This is carefully developed research that provides additional evidence that relatively small interventions can increase the everyday use of stairs in buildings," Craig Zimring, an architecture researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, told Reuters Health. He was not involved in the study.
"It is further evidence that thoughtful design can increase incidental physical activity," he said.
Existing buildings should open up access to stairs, Joanna Frank, executive director of the Center for Active Design, told Reuters Health. The center is a New York nonprofit that does work on the association between architecture and public health.
"New buildings can easily integrate a stair for everyday use from the outset of the design process," she added.
It doesn't cost much extra money to keep these design factors in mind, and other studies have found an increase in employee productivity with more physical activity, Frank said.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1eJV3D2 Preventive Medicine, online December 16, 2013.