Increase employee stair use by improving the view

Study says low-cost improvements yielded more walking

The suggestion "Take the stairs!" is as common a suggestion as can be found in workplace wellness instructions. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator burns calories; taking the elevator doesn't. But that alone is not enough to making a stair-climb attractive — unless you make the stairs more attractive.

That's what the CDC did over several recent years when it launched a study in 1998 to find out whether aesthetic changes to the stairwell in a CDC building could boost the number of employees who decided to walk rather than ride up and down floors.

"StairWELL to Better Health" was a low-cost intervention the CDC's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity undertook to test a theory —- that one reason employees don't use stairs is that they are unattractive and/or perceived as unsafe. At the Koger Center Rhodes Building, researchers implemented a four-stage "intervention" that included painting and carpeting, installation of framed artwork and motivational signs, and the addition of music to a previously utilitarian stairwell.

Infrared beams were used to track stair use. The cost of the additions and improvements was less than $16,000.

If you decorate it, will they come?

CDC researchers installed the improvements to the stairwell in increments, then measured the effect each addition had. They found that making the stairwells more inviting was an important motivator in encouraging people to take the stairs.

First, carpeting and rubber treading were put down over the concrete stairs. Later, bare walls painted bright colors. Framed artwork depicting nutritious food, scenic vistas, and people being active were added to the walls.

Posters with humorous, informative, and encouraging messages were hung in the stairwell and outside, near elevators and doors leading to stairs. Finally, music was added to the stairwell environment.

Focus groups helped the researchers learn what messages, artwork, and music would appeal most broadly to the employees in the building. One focus group was done with employees who frequently used the stairs, while the other consisted of employees who did not frequently use the stairs, in hopes of gaining input that would make the stairwells more attractive to that group.

Researchers at the CDC suggest that workplaces considering a stairwell intervention should track use of the stairs before, during, and after renovations, to gauge the impact of the changes.

The CDC researchers found that while the effects of some of the improvements were short term, overall the modifications did boost the number of CDC employees who took the stairs.

"In this study, we found that both the addition of motivational signs and music appeared to be associated with a modest increase in stairwell use in a population of full-time workers at the CDC," wrote study author Nicole Kerr, RD, MPH. "In the case of signs, however, a significant decrease in stairwell use occurred between the initial 3-month period and the second observational period. The increases in stairwell use we found for signs (short term) and music (longer term) are consistent with the results of other studies."

For a complete description of the StairWELL to Health project, go to