Stairway to fitness

Editorial Notebook

November 01, 2003

CALL IT "enforced fitness." And call it welcome.

Some architects and developers are designing workplaces that offer stairs before one gets to the elevator, cafeterias and meeting rooms at the ends of buildings instead of the center, and parking lots a block or so away. Their idea is to slip a little exercise time in while nobody's looking, in the hope that workers can stem their increasing girth.

And increasing they are. With curb parking at most stores, car commutes and efficient homes and workplaces, many people have lost chances to just walk a bit. A study in the American Journal of Health Promotion suggests that those who live in the suburbs carry a bit more fat on average than those in cities, theorizing that the little bit of walking city-dwellers do is helping them stay slimmer. One-third of adults in a Department of Transportation survey said they had not taken any walking trips in the past week, and that they took the car for three-quarters of all trips less than 1 mile.

Such sedentary living has huge costs. Americans are not just getting fatter but ballooning. The number of people classified as extremely obese has quadrupled since the 1980s; the number of the less severely obese has doubled, according to RAND Corp. research. Some 65 percent of people carry excess baggage, which is linked to greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and many cancers.

For businesses and the government, the weight crisis is leading to higher insurance bills and more sick - and bereavement - days. Overweight and obese Americans subtract $117 billion from the economy's bottom line through increased medical costs and lost productivity, estimates the Department of Health and Human Services, which also estimates that being overweight results in 300,000 deaths a year.

But in some suburbs and cities, it's difficult to walk - there are no sidewalks. And in some cities, parks aren't well-maintained or inviting. Those who try to ride their bikes have to fight for space with drivers who aren't used to sharing.

So some schools and businesses are working to ease their insurance tabs by better promoting fitness on-site.

Some answers include showers and exercise rooms, as well as running paths outside the building. But it's only a certain kind of person who takes advantage of these spaces.

To reach out to the sluggish many, a Richmond, Va., business school has open staircases along an atrium, with elevators - maintaining disability accessibility - toward the side. Sprint's new building in Kansas City, Kan., features slower-than-expected elevators so people will consider walking a flight of stairs. It placed the parking lots off-campus, and buildings a quarter-mile away from one another, with attractive green spaces to make it a pleasant walk.

Stunning staircases and open-floor planning also have other benefits already recognized by designers and users: Open spaces between offices and between floors can inspire employees to meet others in their own company, and bounce ideas off one another without taking the time for a formal meeting. And they can be beautiful: The new Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art poses a free-standing staircase in its soaring atrium lobby, and the design-award-winning Van Meter Hall renovation at Goucher College includes a new entry with a three-story stair tower.

Taking the stairs, the five-minute walk to the parking lot, and a lunch break a block away may not add up to the 4,000 steps a day some experts advise for health. But they're a start, something the country's increasingly sedentary population can't always seem to muster.

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