People will do a lot to avoid having to take the stairs. They’ll wait for an elevator, even if it’s going to take longer. Or they’ll walk far out of their way just to get to an escalator.
In a new study, an urban planner and a psychologist observed almost 34,000 pedestrians using 13 stairways and 12 pairs of escalators in shopping centers in Montreal, and found that people would take the escalator unless the stairs were much more convenient. Doubling the distance between the stairs and the nearest escalator increases the likelihood that someone will climb by 95 percent, according to their statistical analysis.
Granted, shoppers don't always have the same habits as, say, someone dashing to work. But people's aversion to stairs is pretty well documented. City leaders from New York to Turkey have called for residents to skip the elevator for better health. A small Canadian study found that climbing stairs is twice as difficult on the body as walking up a steep incline or lifting weights. A 2008 study found European men (but not women) who lived on higher floors of elevator-less apartment buildings had lower BMIs than their neighbors on lower floors.
The problem in America? Because of fire safety regulations, stairs are often hard to find. Researchers have previously called for better stair design to combat rising obesity rates. Usually hidden in unmarked corners and blocked by heavy fire doors (sometimes programmed to set off alarms when opened), stairs in most urban buildings are designed to look and feel like emergency exits rather than regular routes. It’s no surprise that people don’t venture up them very often. Contrast that with the large, airy central stairs featured in buildings built before the elevator, like New York’s iconic Grand Central station. They look like they’re meant to be used.
Incidental exercise—meaning the workout you get from going about your day, not hitting the gym—can have major impacts on public health, researchers have found. Taking the stairs more often isn’t the same as going for a 30-minute run every day, but minor everyday exertions shouldn’t be discounted, either. Because realistically, most people aren't going to stick to their gym schedule anyway.