The staircase at Rødovre Town Hall, near Copenhagen, designed by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in the 1950's. Flickr/seier+seier

Why health advocates are urging planners and architects to think more seriously about stairs.

Staircases, as the architect Eva Jiricna writes in her book of the same title, are the products of the culture from which they spring, “reflecting the prevailing philosophies and symbolic languages, unveiling the talent and ingenuity of those who have created them.”

So what does the sad state of the modern office and apartment building staircase say about us? As the Urban Land Institute notes in a new report aimed at real estate developers [PDF], “over time, stairs have been relegated to the back corner of buildings.” Windowless cinderblock, fluorescent lighting: It’s a sad state of affairs in the stairwells of America.

And as ULI’s report argues, there's more at stake than just aesthetics. A raft of research suggests that more appealing stairways may actually beckon more people to climb, in turn helping to reduce stroke risk, improving cardiovascular health and fighting obesity.

First, the obvious: More exercise, like the kind you get from taking the stairs instead of the elevator, is good for you. A 40-year study of nearly 17,000 (male) Harvard alumni, published in 1986, found that those who walked, took the stairs and played sports were likely to live longer than their more sedentary classmates. The researchers found that by age 80, one to two additional years of life were attributable to exercise. Take the stairs, enjoy a longer life.

And it appears designers and architects really can bait people into doing what’s good for them. A 2004 study saw a 9 percent increase in foot traffic when researchers added motivational signs, artwork, carpeting, new paint and music to a CDC building’s stairwells. A similar 2001 study published in the American Journal of Public Health tested two interventions in the University of Minnesota's public health building and found that while shaming signs—“Take the stairs for your health”—didn't motivate stair travel, adding artwork and music to them via a compact disc player (aww, 2001) increased stair traffic by nearly 5 percent. “Buildings should be designed with attractive stairwells that are accessible to the general population,” the researchers concluded.

A more attractive staircase, from New York's  Center for Architecture. (Emily Young)

There are more dramatic intervention options, too. ULI, guided by principles from the Center for Active Design, argues that developers should be thinking seriously about stairways even before the construction crew moves in. The groups recommend placing stairs closer to building entrances than elevators and making them more visible. (A 2007 analysis found stairways’ accessibility and visibility explained 53 percent of their use in 10 university buildings.) Using glass panels as walls instead of concrete and cinderblock also gently guides people toward stairways.

A friendlier stairway, from the Gates Foundation's headquarters in Seattle. (Rachel MacCleery)

Of course, many, many architects and real estate developers have been thinking seriously about staircase design for decades. And creating nicer stairways is just one of many strategies health-minded designers are using to take physical exertion outside the gym. (The ULI report, in fact, has almost 100 pages of ideas.) But if more do start taking stairs seriously, maybe we can kiss those fluorescent light bulbs—not to mention some of those love handles—goodbye forever.

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