Jen Gunter: The challenge of taking the stairs

jengunterNew York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, wants people to take the stairs. He is quoted as saying, “Buildings are often designed in ways that minimize physical activity,” and as inactivity is a major contributor to obesity he wants all new and renovated buildings in New York to have visible stairs.

He couldn’t be more right.

I have maintained a 60 pound weight loss for two years and the most crucial part of maintenance for me is physical activity. I run five days a week, I don’t search for the closest parking spot, and I take the stairs.

At least I try to take the stairs, because if I don’t know the building finding a staircase is often more daunting than the actual climb.

While I take the stairs at work, to find them I have to take twists and turns that imply these stairs are for emergency use only. They do not invite the casual user. This is of course how almost all modern buildings are designed. A reinforced fire staircase tucked out of the way.

When elevators were a luxury and before economy of space reigned supreme (and of course before modern fire codes), we had accessible stairs. At my medical school it was nothing short of a faux pas for staff and students to take the elevator unless transporting a patient, but the staircase was well marked and accessible. We (staff, residents, and students alike) probably climbed those stairs countless times on any given day considering all the trips to radiology, the emergency room, rounding on multiple wards, and coffee runs.

This summer I took my children to my home town of Winnipeg and we stayed at the Hotel Fort Garry, one of Canada’s grand railway hotels. The elevators while probably an amazement in 1913 were claustrophobic by modern standards and simply paled in comparison to the magnificent staircase. The stairs fascinated my 10 year old twin boys. They had never seen one so beautiful, never mind a staircase that so clearly invited use. They ran up and down delighting in the views from the top and the bottom and the echoes of their voices. We only took the elevator when hauling our luggage.

We conducted an experiment (while there was only an n of 2 as the participants were twins there were minimal variables between groups). One took the stairs to our 5th floor room and the other the elevator and then, because it is never to early to learn scientific method, we crossed the groups over. On both runs the elevator was 30 seconds faster but decidedly less fun.

We clearly need staircases that can withstand fire for safe egress, but buildings also need to reflect the way we are meant to live and we are meant to move.

Mayor Bloomberg is right, we need stairs. They can help keep us healthy, save electricity, and exhaust 10 year olds. Until building design catches up I will continue to hunt for the stairs wherever I go, my kids in tow.

Jen Gunter is an obstetrician/gynaecologist in San Francisco. She blogs on her personal site at