A Look Inside New York’s “Active Design” Initiative to Fight Obesity
As New Yorkers power through a crippling heat wave, the last thing on their minds when they finally enter an air-conditioned building is sprinting up a flight of stairs. But, if Bloomberg has any say in the matter, elevators may soon go out of style.
In the past 12 years, the NYC mayor has ordered food chains to post calorie counts, banned the use of trans fat in restaurants, banned smoking in many public places, and tried to stop the sale of oversized cups of soda. Now, with just a few weeks left in office, he’s issued orders and proposed legislation designed to make staircases more visible and accessible in city buildings. His goal is to see New Yorkers sweat — essentially, to make exercise a bigger part of daily activity.
What’s the Deal?
Some of Bloomberg’s proposed strategies for getting people to use the stairs are simple, such as tacking up signs near elevators that encourage people to hoof it instead. Bloomberg also announced that the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit organization based at The New School, in New York, will lead efforts to create buildings that promote physical activity. Some potential strategies include making sure stairs are clean, well lit, and completely visible.
These recommendations are based on the city’s Active Design Guidelines, issued in 2010, which help city planners figure out how the environment can encourage a healthy lifestyle . Bloomberg’s campaign to increase stair usage is one step in making those guidelines applicable to daily life.
Why It Matters
In the wake of rising obesity rates (as of 2012, 36 percent of U.S. adults were obese), city governments across the U.S. have tried to implement different policies that motivate people to get their daily dose of physical activity. The idea is to make exercise accessible to everyone, even if they don’t hit the gym for an hour every day. Most of these efforts have focused on making cities more conducive to walking and biking instead of driving everywhere   .
Bloomberg’s specific focus on stair usage may be the key to his success. There’s a lot of evidence that, in buildings where stairways are visible and accessible, people are more likely to use them . Moreover, research suggests that sometimes it’s less about making structural changes in the environment and more about changing people’s perception of their environment  . So a simple strategy such as placing motivational signs near stairways and elevators may be highly effective in getting people to take the stairs more often   .
The only remaining question is what will define “success” for Bloomberg and the Active Design team. If the goal is to get people moving more, the mayor is on the right track. The benefits of walking, even just a little bit more every day, include lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and a reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease . But research suggests that getting people to take the stairs more often won’t do much to help them lose weight and reduce obesity rates .
Overall, the mayor’s efforts may be a great way to encourage people to incorporate more physical activity into their daily lives. After all, one healthier choice, such as swapping the stairs for the elevator, may lead to others. At the very least, it’s a comfort to know we may actually get to work faster on foot.
Do you think Bloomberg’s efforts to promote stair use will actually get people exercising more? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.
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