Whenever we climb the stairs, we score some much-needed exercise "bonus points." A recent study examined the factors that might encourage mall shoppers to climb a staircase instead of taking the too easy escalator. A simple 100 percent increase in the distance between steps and an escalator created a 95 percent increase in stair use, the researchers discovered.

“Environmental factors have been explicitly identified as having an impact on stair climbing, including the visibility of the stairway and its width,” Dr. John Zacharias, senior author and a professor at the University of Peking, stated in a press release. “This study shows that staircase location is just as important, and should be factored in when planning new buildings.”

Urban planning concerns itself with improving the lives of people through the design and creation of more healthful, efficient, and attractive buildings and environments. Among the most consistently shared public spaces are any and all areas where people shop. Malls and shopping centers, then, are ripe for new designs that encourage us to leave our sedentary lives behind and walk, walk, walk. Shopping, done right, is cardio, so is it possible that more effective urban planning might turn it into an even better workout?

Climbing the Stairs

Zacharias, while still a faculty member at Concordia University, and his co-authors decided to test the theory that the rate of use for a stairway in a shopping mall depended, in part, on how far from the escalator the stairway stood.

To understand how often people took the stairs when an escalator was not handy, the researchers monitored 13 stairways and 12 pairs of escalators in seven connected shopping centers in downtown Montreal. Staked out at the malls, the observers counted the number of pedestrians on both the stairs and escalator for set period in the morning and afternoon in order to account for different traffic patterns and flows. The researchers counted a total of 33,793 pedestrians ascending or descending over 35 days.

Examination of the data showed that increasing the distance between a stairway and an escalator by 100 percent accounted for 71 percent of variance when shoppers were going up, and 21 percent of variance when they were going down. Overall, they calculated a 95 percent increase in stair use.

Though these results may influence future urban planning, the more important health effects need to be considered. Do we too easily forget the exercise bonus points received for taking the stairs when a convenient (and alluring) escalator beckons us? It's easier to change our minds than the architecture of our local mall. Simply becoming more mindful of any environment we enter would help us take advantage of simple exercise opportunities.

Source: J. Zacharias, R. Ling. Choosing Between Stairs and Escalator in Shopping Centers: The Impact of Location, Height, and Pedestrian Volume. Environment and Behavior. 2014.