fitness · training

Taking the stairs will not get you in shape but you should take the stairs anyway

The mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg wants New Yorkers to take the stairs more often but a writer for Gawker wonders why.

“Specifically, Bloomberg has “issued an executive order requiring city agencies to promote the use of stairways and use smart design strategies for all new construction and major renovations.” Going forward, more areas of New York City will have more staircases, and you will walk up those stairs more than you do now. You will, perhaps, take fewer elevators and escalators. You will climb a greater total number of stairs in your day to day life in New York City than you do now. Will this get you “in good shape?” No, it will not.”

Read the rest here: Taking the Stairs Will Not Get You in Shape.

I’m a huge fan of everyday exercise: hanging laundry on the line, biking to work, and yes, taking the stairs. (I’ve blogged about it of course. See In praise of everyday movement.) Tracy too has wondered What “Counts”? when it comes to exercise.

Here’s where some distinctions might come in handy. For sure, taking the stairs is movement. It’s physical activity. But I don’t think of it as athletic training, as helping to make me more fit.

Movement is good and more movement is better and stairs are part of the picture. But getting fitter, like getting faster, requires goals and a plan.

So just where does everyday exercise fit in?

I think the answer is in part, it depends. When I starting working with a personal trainer at the Y in my late 30s I dutifully logged all my exercise including my bike commute. About a year later he asked if I’d started driving to work. No, I said. But without thinking I’d stopped logging the commute. At the time I was training with the UWO triathlon club and in light of those workouts the bike commute was barely registering.

But my bike commuting got a huge reaction from the students, triathletes all. You biked to campus? Um, yes. Before our swim workout? Yes. They were shocked at the idea of doing anything before our morning swim. They seemed to only “train” and shunned everyday movement.

Think back to our friends the sedentary athletes, those who work out and then flop. I had a friend who took the elevator at work because he was saving his strength for “leg day.” Dead lifts and squats, sure, but for now he’s elevating between floors at the university.

I’m in favour of both things: athletic training and active everyday living.

Like many of us I’m struck by the big differences between Europeans and North Americans when it comes to this. In Europe, it seems to me, most people look reasonably fit, insofar as you can read that off someone’s appearance. They take the stairs, walk lots and commute by bike. (They also seem to smoke more but that’s another topic.) In North America, we have the dichotomy between the average person, who doesn’t look fit, and the super fit who look like another species walking among us! Here it seems we either train or we do nothing. It’s North Americans who are mocked for driving to the gym.

So I think we need both, athletic training and everyday movement. Don’t take the stairs at work to get super fit. The Gawker writer is right. It won’t work. But keep moving because it’s good for you.

And here’s stairs I love. Sweden wins over New York, I’d say!

14 thoughts on “Taking the stairs will not get you in shape but you should take the stairs anyway

  1. Completely agree that movement is good for you and it doesn’t have to be “exercise” to count. I often get asked (my parents and all their friends are golfers!) what I think about golf as exercise. In my opinion golf as exercise isn’t really going to cut it, too much stop start, intensity never increases etc. HOWEVER I then go on to say from a health perspective it’s great. It’s a walk outside in fresh air with friends, often pulling something. I would rather you played golf than sat on the sofa with remote in hand. Once again an article has focused on the losing weight aspect of exercise and ignored health.

  2. Thanks for the post, have just started running again this week after 20 years! Tired of the gym and want to climb some big hills so needed to get out and do some meters. Surprisingly not as bad a I thought and I am sure it has something to do with climbing stairs with washing, vaccuum cleaners, odd shoes, socks, kids, bags etc etc. Anyway will be reading with interest over the coming months as my meters move to miles.

  3. Unfortunately, Sam, I can understand the fellow who was “saving his legs for leg day at the gym.” When you have a 1 1/2 hour “resistance training” workout of legs only and you really push yourself, you can barely walk the next day. Would you criticize someone for taking the elevator the day after running a full marathon? That said, I understand completely how it would be quite strange to drive to the gym if within walking or biking distance. The only other thing that comes to mind is how back breaking certain forms of manual labour can be. At the gym, we hopefully use good form. But certain types of manual labour almost call for bad form. Manual workers in the construction industry for instance quite often get injured after 10 years on the job and end up receiving paltry WSIB benefits for life. I think alot of women in times of yore ended up semi-crippled after years of endless housework of the back breaking variety. So when people romanticize the hard life which alot of people in the past had to live and say they were fit back then, I think they’re ignoring the fact that it was a hard life they led and that many of these people became physically broken and destitute as a result.

    1. Hey, I get using the elevator after leg day. It’s just “before” that I was mocking! And I agree with the points about form and manual labour.

  4. I love every day movement. If I could do all my workouts in some form of day-to-day work, I would. I have a desk job though, so I need to add specific, planned exercise to my day, with set goals. I don’t count the day-to-day, I just give myself a little extra mental gold star anytime I walk instead of drive, climb stairs, or carry a basket of heavy groceries through the store or market.

  5. Laughing here. I really am saying that I understand not wanting to use the stairs before leg day. I won’t even do cardio the day before leg day – it makes leg day almost impossible, if I do. Anyway – that’s me, and it sounds like that’s him too. Sam, do you devote a single day each week to resistance training for “legs” at the gym – like work just them as hard as you can doing everything from different types of squats, deadlifts, presses, raises, machines for hamstrings, etc., for well over an hour? If you do, I’m amazed by you. If you don’t, try it – actually step into your friend’s shoes before judging him. See what you think then.

  6. I admit to having some concerns when I first read about this stairs initiative and the idea that “YOU” meaning “WE” should climb more stairs. I really think it shows how exclusive that “you/we” really is, since not everyone is able to take the stairs. I think it’s a worry when things like this become public initiatives. “Smart design” that includes more stairs might trump “smart design” that makes spaces more accessible. Can we have more stairs without having fewer elevators and escalators than we already have? That to me is a major concern.

    As much as I’m a fan of everyday movement, I also wonder whether the injunction to use more stairs is a not-so-covert “health imperative” (despite the claim that it will not really improve the health of those who do climb more stairs). What if I don’t take the stairs? Or what if I can’t take the stairs? As a firm believer in “ought implies can,” it seems to me that the initiative is ominously silent about people with disabilities. As a public initiative supported by the mayor, it seems to me to be setting up a situation where we can “shame” people over things that they should have a choice about, or worse, over things that some do not have a choice about.

    So I’m worried. And as a friend pointed out to me on FB this morning, so are disability activists in NYC. It’s not as if the city has a great record of being accessible. So an initiative to build more stairs may not be quite what the city needs right now.

    And while average non-disabled Europeans are no doubt “fitter” than many North Americans, disabled Europeans have restricted access to all sorts of spaces. Even just trying to roll luggage in Europe can be a challenge, nevermind trying to negotiate streets and sidewalks with a disability.

    So okay, take the stairs if you can and if you choose to. But let’s not say we have to, okay?

    1. Agreed. I think it’s a tough balancing act, making places accessible without allowing those who can get somewhere without assistance to do so. I’ve had similar thoughts about our national parks. I love the lack of motor boats and vehicles generally in Algonquin park for example. But the canoeing and portaging required to get there is considerable. Yet, if we allowed other routes in would many more people choose the motorized way? It’s tough.

      1. Oh, and no one is doubting that stairs are good for your health, if you can climb stairs. The Gawker skeptic I was agreeing with just said stairs wouldn’t make you fit.

      2. I can see the point for the national parks because we are trying to preserve a resource in its natural state. But I’m not sure access in urban areas has the same consequences and I think that people should be able to choose when and whether they take elevators and escalators as opposed to stairs without having to defend or explain their choice. That was my concern that it could become an imperative.

      3. Nice to see the renovations in union station feature, they say “more elevators and more stairs.” I do get frustrated in modern elevator buildings at not being to find the stairs and in public buildings, where there is a cost issue and environmental reasons to reduce energy use, to require or encourage those who can, to use stairs.

  7. “In Europe, it seems to me, most people look reasonably fit, insofar as you can read that off someone’s appearance. They take the stairs, walk lots and commute by bike.”…not every in Europe. At least not in the bit of Europe I live in!

    But getting back to your point about ‘everyday’ exercise. I think it absolutely counts as exercise, although it won’t necessarily make you fit. I remember reading somewhere that this kind of everyday exercise – walking up stairs, getting off the bus a stop early, doing the gardening etc – is actually better for losing weight, albeit slowly, than full-intensity exercise. The reason for that is that you’re burning calories, probably not a lot, but some anyway, almost without your body realising. But when you do a full-on work-out, your body knows it’s burning calories so it responds by making you hungry.

  8. “although it won’t necessarily make you fit”

    But it can add to your fitness, no?

    There was a time when the three flights of stair to my desk cube taxed my legs. Now I can run them (wearing heels) in seconds without flinching and it only took a few months to gain that kind of strength.

    The rest of my thoughts are in agreement with yours.
    Thanks for the write up.

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