Stairway to health: Design boost use

Novel ways to encourage 'stair masters'

When Union Pacific designed and built its new headquarters building in Omaha, NE, stairways — of all things — were a big part of the planning process.

"They are on each side of the building with glass on one side, so they are full of natural light and inviting to use," says Jackie Austad, general director of health promotion and wellness.

Printers were removed from individual workspaces and placed in common areas. "This configuration requires employees to get up from their desk and move throughout the day," says Austad.

Unlike wellness programs or lunch-and-learns, stairs are there any time an employee wishes to use them.

"You don't need employee buy-in to do that, like you would if you were doing an educational program where the employees had to show up and participate," says Mark G. Wilson, HSD, director of the Workplace Health Group at the University of Georgia's College of Public Health.

Here are ways to encourage workers to take the stairs:

• Make them more appealing.

"First of all, stairways must be well-lit and safe," says Jennifer Rooke, MD, MPH, FACOEM, FACPM, medical director of Atlanta Lifestyle Medicine.

• Set up competitions.

"Competitions seem to be the best way to get voluntary participation in health activities, especially among men," says Rooke.

• Employee involvement

To involve employees, hold a contest for drawings to be submitted by various departments, and have the stairwells painted with a selected illustration. "The illustration could depict the area or location you are climbing or exiting out of," suggests Gail Bruce, RN/COHN, an employee health nurse at West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, LA. Bruce gives these approaches to increase awareness of taking the stairs:

— Install an employee badge reader at the stairwells to track usage.

— Post colorful charts in centrally located areas such as cafeterias, depicting which employees or departments are using the stairs the most.

— Award healthy prizes to workers who take the stairs most often, such as free lunches of salads or fruit and cheese.

• Track activity.

This can be difficult, since constant observation is needed to determine how often stairs are being used. "Probably the easiest option is to use technology, such as video cameras or motion detectors," says Wilson. "However, it's important for employees to understand 'Big Brother' is not watching them, or they won't use the stairs to avoid observation."

Another approach is to give workers pedometers so they can measure their own activity. "These can be compared and used to rank participating groups or individuals," says Rooke.


For more information on encouraging workers to take the stairs, contact:

• Gail Bruce, RN/COHN, Employee Health Nurse, West Jefferson Medical Center, Marrero, LA. Phone: (504) 349-1882. Fax: (504) 349-2459.

• Jennifer Rooke, MD, MPH, FACOEM, FACPM, Medical Director, Atlanta (GA) Lifestyle Medicine. Phone: (404) 769-3928. E-mail:

• Mark G. Wilson, HSD, Director, Workplace Health Group, College of Public Health, University of Georgia, Athens. Phone: (706) 542-4364. Fax: (706) 542-4956. E-mail: