Architects can participate in the cultural fat fight by making simple changes to the design and location of staircases within buildings.

Architects can participate in the cultural fat fight by making simple changes to the design and location of staircases within buildings, say medical researchers.

“Changing stair design to encourage their use requires a set of interventions on both architectural and legislative levels to create physical environments that support active living,” according to an article in the June issue of Southern Medical Journal.

Research suggests that light to moderate physical activity is effective in motivating people who are currently inactive and obese. The authors of the research, led by Ishak A. Mansi, M.D., of Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, point out that ordinary daily physical activity contributes the most to total energy expenditure.

But current approaches to stair design pose a problem, they say. “Stairs are frequently hidden from entrances, with only small signs denoting their locations, typically in connection to the fire exit.”

Simple interventions can encourage people to take the stairs. For example, a study performed at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention building found that playing music in stairwells and displaying motivational signs significantly increased the use of stairs. These and other measures to make stairs attractive, safe, and readily accessible could help to make buildings more “physical activity-friendly,” the authors write. They suggest several ways to make stairs more inviting, including widening them, lowering the stair tread height, and adding music, lighting, and air conditioning to stairways.

Such efforts would mesh in with recommended policy and environmental changes to increase physical activity. “State and local agencies are being encouraged by federal and nongovernmental organizations to use policy interventions to address the public health problem of physical activity,” according to the authors. They call for physicians, architects, and other professionals to work together to promote change in such policies. “Perhaps now is the time to address the need for standard national building codes that incorporate health concerns and support active living,” they conclude.

An advocate of design’s power to address social ills, author Richard Farson lauds the attempt to make stairs more enticing but invites even broader participation by architects and designers in elevating the fitness of Americans: “More inviting staircases are just one of many designs that could reduce obesity. How about sidewalks, bicycle paths, walking distance shopping, and almost anything that gets us out of our cars and off our couches?” he said in response to the staircase research. Farson’s newest book, The Power of Design: A Force for Transforming Everything, details the benefits of “metadesign” — a transcendent level of design that seeks to rectify fundamental problems by addressing the needs of all people.

“Designers are probably our most powerful professionals because they have proven they can reduce accidents, crime, illness, and school failure. And that’s just fixing the bad stuff. Think of what they can do to improve productivity, cooperation and community!” Farson said.