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Promoting health: Increasing stair climbing using a multifaceted intervention

We spend over 90% of our time inside built environments. With an economy that increasingly focuses on services, our working lives become overwhelmingly indoor and sedentary. Occupational physical activity has dropped to low levels so that for most people it no longer contributes significantly to overall physical activity. Less than half of Australian adults are sufficiently active for health (at least 30 minutes moving at moderate levels, such as brisk walking, per day). Moving more as well as breaking up sitting time, have great health benefits.

Climbing stairs is considered vigorous physical activity, similar in intensity to jogging or playing football. These activities are around eight times the body’s metabolic rate, or the amount of energy the body uses when resting or sleeping, or five to six times more than when sitting. Walking down the stairs, on the other hand, is not much different to walking on a flat surface and expends only twice the energy of when you’re sitting.

Stair climbing is great for health beyond energy expenditure only. Research has found that regular stair climbing can enhance longevity and increase aerobic capacity and muscle strength. Hence, using the stairs instead of the escalator or lift is a simple, free, and accessible way of incorporating more incidental physical activity into daily living.

The most common approach to encourage stair use is motivational signs placed at visible locations and in 2014 we trialled motivational signs in several buildings at Sydney University campus, but we found that these did not increase stair use.

The next step was to up the ante and use a range of methods to encourage stair use. These included interchanging messages and infographics on AV screens located throughout the building; interactive signs and associated mobile phone app; in-house team challenges; and group emails in addition to motivational signs placed next to and in the lifts and arrows showing the direction of the stairs.

To measure the change in stair and lift use we set up the USB bidirectional wireless infrared counters on the stairs on each floor and at the entrance to the lifts. We measure stair and lift use before the intervention started and during the four week intervention to be able to see how stair use behaviour have changed. Since stair climbing is more health promoting, we are interested in seeing if it stair walking in total has changed, and stair descending and climbing in specific.

To date we have 110 building occupants in 19 teams participating in the challenges. Data is still being collected, hence the results are not yet known, but in the first two week the participants climbed in total 5100 floors (this is twice the height of Mt Everest)!

Thanks to Dr. Lina Engelen, PHD, MSC (Research Fellow at the University of Sydney) for the contribution. To find out more about Lina's valuable research work please click here

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