Boyd Rutherford gets a lot of reading done as he climbs the stairs.
Most days after returning from lunch, he hikes up 15 flights to his office in the State Office Building on Preston Street with a memorandum or article to absorb during the 10-minute trip.
His staff teases him about his insistence on taking the stairs, but the 46-year-old Department of General Services secretary says, “It’s my modest attempt to be somewhat active.”
Rutherford is serious about the State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s initiative called Smart Step Forward, which challenges employees to take the stairs and not the elevator.
“A lot of people don’t even know where the stairs are,” says Gary Wunderlich, chief of the health department’s division of cardiovascular health and the driving force behind the initiative, which began in 2002.
Using motivational signs and refurbished stairwells, the state program promotes the health benefits of taking the stairs. Stair climbing on a regular basis has been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness, reduce cholesterol and decrease body fat. It’s also inexpensive and convenient, requiring no specialized equipment.
The trick is to get people off the elevator by changing their behavior, Wunderlich says. Smart Step Forward, inspired by a similar program created by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prompts behavior change with posters near elevators that say, “Physical activity will add years to your life and life to your years,” and “A flight a day may keep chronic disease away.”
“We haven’t promoted the program aggressively,” Wunderlich says, “but it has been building gradually.” Smart Step Forward kits have been sent to more than 30 businesses and schools throughout the state, including Mercy Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Healthcare and the Carroll County school district. Anne Arundel County is actively promoting the initiative as part of its employee wellness program.
Along with posters, Wunderlich says making sure that stairwells are accessible, well lighted and safe is important. At the state office complex on Preston Street, for example, stairs were spruced up, and employees got together to paint original murals on landings.
The notion of encouraging employees to use the stairs has been gaining a foothold in offices nationwide. The director of the CDC has ordered some elevators at the Atlanta headquarters be turned off, and has had the stairwells carpeted and children’s artwork hung on the walls.
At the new Sprint telecommunications corporate headquarters in Kansas, slow-moving hydraulic elevators were installed to dissuade people from using them, and spacious staircases with picture windows encourage more walking.
Choosing the stairs over elevators and escalators is among the activities suggested by the U.S. Surgeon General to achieve a recommended 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise.
The Surgeon General’s recommended a 30-minute minimum, notes Mary Concannon, osteoporosis prevention coordinator for the state Department of Health. It can be broken up into segments throughout the day, so a 5- or 10-minute climb counts.
“People who make modest lifestyle adjustments, such as parking the car further away or climbing the stairs, get the same results as people who go to the gym,” she says. “And they tend to stick to their programs.”
Concannon frequently gets off the light rail one stop early to walk the remaining few blocks to her office at 300 W. Preston St. - an activity that takes about 15 minutes. “If I walk back at the end of the day, that’s another 15 minutes, and there’s my 30 minutes. Done.”
Athletes - and others in good shape - will not necessarily maintain their fitness level by climbing stairs, but they might add stair running to their workouts.
John Mahoney, clinical director at Kernan Physical Therapy in Timonium, oversees rehabilitation for the University of Maryland sports medicine program. “Running stairs is like sprinting,” he says, “it’s a good way to incorporate interval training into a run.”
It requires a great deal of energy to take the stairs at a clip, however. “It can be very strenuous,” Mahoney says. “You should take your pulse at the top to determine how fit you are.”
Mark Hoffman, a Baltimore personal trainer, has clients run up and down the stairs as part of their workouts. On stair-stepping machines at the gym, he says, “you aren’t actually lifting your body weight upward.”
Michael Yorio, assistant team physician for the University of Maryland football team, adds a word of caution about stair running, though.
“Walking up stairs is a great way to add more activity to your daily routine,” he says, but running on them means “a lot of pounding on your knees and can lead to overuse injuries.”
Shelley Sehnert, fitness director at the Meadow Mill Athletic Club, advocates running stairs as a component of interval training but advises those who are out of shape to take the stairs with care.
Even programs like the state’s Smart Step Forward are not for everyone.
“People might have undiagnosed injuries” or other health problems such as arthritis or high blood pressure,” Sehnert says. Also workplace walkers often don’t warm up, and may not be wearing proper footwear.Sehnert recommends starting out slowly, and if you have been sedentary, “always consult a physician before starting any workout program.”
Bill Brown, comptroller for Anne Arundel County, began walking up the stairs in January, a month after he had heart surgery. He started by climbing six flights during the course of the day, monitoring his pulse. Within about a month, he had climbed a total of about 150 flights. He’s got his eye on one of the prizes offered to county employees who participate in the Smart Step program: a pedometer.
Anne Arundel County officials embraced the stair program last fall. By early this year, about 420 employees had signed up and formed teams, according to Ruth Kershner, program manager for adult risk reduction programs at the county’s Department of Health.
“We had no idea people would be so interested,” Kershner said. Challengers keep logs of their efforts and will receive awards based on total number of flights achieved by March 31. They can go for the “gold” by hiking the equivalent of the Empire State Building (103 flights). The silver and bronze represent the Washington Monument (55 flights) and the Maryland State House (23 flights) respectively.
“I predict we’ll be giving away a lot of golds,” Kershner says.
Rutherford been taking the stairs for about a year, and has noticed an increase in stamina. One 27-year-old on his staff walked the 15 flights with him once, he recalls. “He hasn’t done it since.”
The state’s Smart Step Forward initiative is designed to encourage simple changes in behavior to increase physical activity.
According to state Department of Health officials, seven in 10 Marylanders in 2002 were engaged in jobs that mostly involved sitting or standing, and 23 percent said they had not participated in physical activity or exercise in the previous month.
Here are some tips for using the stairs:
# Begin with one flight at a time. It may seem insignificant, but that one flight every day for a year might mean shedding a pound or two of body fat.
# Give yourself a reason to use the stairs - find a water cooler or restroom on a different floor.
# Walk with a co-worker during a break.
# Always consult a doctor before undertaking a new exercise regimen, especially if you have been sedentary or are concerned about injuries or other physical conditions.
For more information about the state’s Smart Step Forward initiative, or how to begin a program in your own office building, visit the Web site smartstepforward.org/html/stairwell.html.
Revision date: July 9, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD