Less than half of healthy Europeans and Americans meet public health guidelines by undertaking moderate intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 30 minutes on five days each week. This failure comes despite widespread knowledge that physical activity levels are inversely associated with risks of cardiovascular disease.
“The challenge remains to develop successful population-based interventions, which promote physical activities that can be easily integrated into everyday life,” says Dr Philippe Meyer, from the University Hospital of Geneva, Switzerland, the principal author of the study. Since most adults spend half their waking hours at work, Meyer felt that this setting offered the greatest potential for encouraging physical activity.
Seventy-seven employees from the University of Geneva with a sedentary lifestyle (defined as less than two hours of exercise or sport each week, and less than 10 flights of stair-climbing a day) were recruited to the study. Over 12 weeks, subjects were asked to use stairs exclusively instead of elevators at work.
Results show that for the 69 subjects completing the study the mean daily number of ascended and descended floors rose from 5 (±4) to 23 (±12) (p<0.001). At 12 weeks, VO2 max (used to measure aerobic capacity) had increased by 8.6% (p<0.0001). The mean increase of aerobic capacity of 3.2 ml/kg/min corresponds to approximately 1 metabolic equivalent (MET), which confers, according to published data, a 15% decrease in all-cause mortality risk. “This suggests that stair climbing at work may have major public health implications," said Meyer. "However, the results of this pilot study need to be confirmed in a larger randomised controlled trial."
In addition, results showed a statistically significant decline in waist circumference (-1.8%), weight (-0.7%), fat mass (-1.7%), diastolic blood pressure (-2.3%) and LDL cholesterol (-3.9%).
Three months after completion of the intervention, the mean daily number of ascended and descended one-storey staircase units had decreased to 10. However, says Meyer, this poor residual effect of the intervention was much influenced by the unforeseen closing of the main central staircase in the hospital for renovations, adding: “It underlines the importance of architectural design and convenient placement of stair wells to help people make healthy choices."