I love simple physical activity interventions. We all know that physical activity is a good thing, and yet it can be really difficult for people to increase their physical activity levels, especially over the long-term. So it’s exciting whenever any intervention is shown to be effective, but even more so when it is simple. And an intervention that is both simple and inexpensive is pure gold. I wrote about one such intervention a few weeks ago, when I described a British study that showed that simply painting lines on a school-yard playground resulted in a dramatic increase in physical activity levels during recess. The intervention was simple, it was inexpensive and extremely easy to implement, and yet it had an impressive positive impact. What more could you ask for?
Earlier this week I came across a similarly simple intervention published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health
, this time focused on adults. In this new study, Megan Grimstvedt and colleagues placed signs near the elevators of 4 university buildings in San Antonio. The sign said simply “Walking up stairs burns almost 5 times as many calories as riding an elevator”
and included an arrow directing people to the nearest staircase, as well as a cartoon of the school mascot walking up a flight of stairs. Two of the buildings had very visible staircases, while two of the buildings had staircases that were relatively hidden. The buildings with hidden staircases had an additional sign on the staircase door to tell people that the stairs were accessible (e.g. no fire alarm would sound). The researchers then positioned themselves in “inconspicuous” locations for 2 hours per day, Monday-Thursday, and tallied the number of people using the staircase and elevator.
So, what did they find? Not surprisingly, hidden staircases were used far less than visible staircases at all time points. At baseline, only 13% of people used hidden staircases, while 43% of people used visible staircases. Even more interesting is that overall stair use increased 34% as a result of the intervention, an increase which persisted 4 weeks after the signs had been removed. The absolute increase was similar for both the hidden and visible staircases (roughly 12 percentage points), although the relative increase was far greater for the hidden staircases, which went from being used just 13% of the time at baseline to nearly 25% 4 weeks after the intervention.
I think this study is really interesting for a couple reasons. First, it confirms common sense – people don’t use staircases that are hard to find. But it also suggests that a simple poster can have a significant impact on peoples’ decision to take take the stairs rather than the elevator, and that this impact persists for at least one month once the signs are removed. The authors point out that this might be due to the fact that the same people (students and faculty) would be using the buildings on a regular basis, so staircase use may have been adopted into part of their normal routine (they note that previous research in shopping centres, which would have a more transient population, have shown much less persistence once signs are taken down).
Now of course increased stair use alone is not going to fix our current epidemic of physical inactivity and chronic disease. And even after the intervention, only about 50% of all individuals chose to use the stairs (the proportion was closer to 60% when the stairs were easily visible). But this is an intervention that would cost almost nothing, and had a noticeable and persistent impact on physical activity levels – what more could you ask for?
It’s not often that I come across a study that is so applicable to the modern workplace, and I’d encourage you to try it out in the coming weeks. Place a sign next to your workplace elevator with an arrow pointing to the nearest staircase and see what happens. I’m hoping to try it out where I work, and I’m curious to hear how it goes for others. Do co-workers get upset, like when Pam put up a sign asking co-workers to clean the microwave on The Office? Or do they appreciate the reminder? I’d love to hear what you think!
Have a great weekend,
Megan E. Grimstvedt, Jacqueline Kerr, Sara B. Oswal, Donovan L. Fogt, Tiffanye M. Vargas-Tonsing, & Zenong Yin (2010). Using Signage to Promote Stair Use on a University Campus
in Hidden and Visible Stairwells Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 232-238