Opinion: walking instead of using the lift, escalator or moving walkway can increase your recommended daily dose of physical activity and improve your health

Post-Christmas, this is the time of year when there is no shortage of encouragement to convert from a sedentary lifestyle to a more active one. But while gym membership and new sports kit sales surge, many good intentions and new exercise routines are likely to be abandoned before the month is over. The changes to routine and the behaviour change required to move from coach potato to exercising five times a week are difficult to sustain.

Although current physical activity guidelines recommend that we accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week, the evidence suggests that the health benefits can be derived from even less activity and additional benefits can be gained from doing more. In other words, some is good, more is better but every bit counts!

Many of the escalators and walkways we encounter cover modest rises and walkable distances which could be easily covered by most healthy individuals

For most of us, walking and climbing stairs are the most obvious ways of increasing our daily activity. But our efforts to incorporate more of this type of opportunistic or lifestyle activity into our everyday lives are being thwarted by architects and engineers intent on moving us from A to B with minimum effort or muscle contraction on our part.

First showcased in the late 19th century as tourist attractions or novelty rides, escalators and moving walkways have become an integral feature in many modern buildings including workplaces, shopping centres, airports, train stations and other public spaces. Many of the escalators and walkways we encounter on a daily basis cover modest rises and walkable distances which could be easily covered by most healthy individuals. Moreover, the presence and central placement of these passive methods of moving may be depriving us of valuable opportunities to increase our physical activity. Is it time to shun the escalator, lift and moving walkway and treat them as health hazards?

Is this a health risk? Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

In recent years, when walking has become a cornerstone of physical activity promotion, the use of moving walkways appears to have increased exponentially. The purpose of these expensive human conveyor belts is to speed up journeys, such as from airport security to departure gate. They are designed for users to get on and continue walking to lever advantage from the additional speed provided by the walkway. However, what often happens is people step on and stand still letting the walkway do the work.

With most walkways set to move at speeds of between 2 and 4 km per hour, well below the usual self-selected walking speed of healthy adults (5 to 6 km per hour), standing still on these machines is actually likely to slow the journey. Even those who use the walkway as intended are not likely to speed up their journey. Researchers at Princeton have found that people using walkways are likely to reduce their walking speed in an attempt to reconcile the sensory conflict between the forward movement sensed visually and the walking speed that the legs feel. Not surprisingly, attempts to introduce a high-speed walkway (9 to 12 km per hour) in the Paris metro station Montparnasse had to be abandoned due to the number of users having accidents.

"What often happens is people step on and stand still letting the walkway do the work" Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Although often overlooked, current physical activity guidelines for adults also include recommendations for both vigorous intensity and muscular strengthening activity. Avoiding the escalator or lift and taking the stairs may be the perfect opportunity to get some of the health benefits of vigorous intensity and/or muscle strengthening activity. In terms of intensity, taking the stairs is likely to be vigorous intensity for most of the adult population. By choosing to take the stairs or planning a route that incorporates some stair climbing, many of us could easily fit some vigorous intensity activity into our daily routines.

For younger, fitter individuals, taking the steps two at a time or even running up a flight will increase physiological demands to a level normally reserved for a gym workout. For those at a lower level of fitness or older adults with lower aerobic capacity using the handrail, climbing at a slower pace or even just walking downstairs is likely to be vigorous intensity. It will encourage the development, or at least reduce, the age-related decline of muscle function which has serious effects on independent living.

Maybe it’s time for those designing buildings to consider the design and placement of escalators and walkways?

With increasing recognition of environmental influences on physical activity, maybe it’s time for those designing buildings to consider the design and placement of escalators and walkways? Using "choice architecture" or altering the micro-environment can change health behaviour. Placing stairs and non-motorised walkways in the most conspicuous places - and reminding people to consider the stairs instead of the lift through point of decision prompts can "nudge" greater proportions of the inactive population to make a physically active choice and contribute to improved public health.

The next time you see a moving walkway or escalator, stay clear but instead try to keep pace with those have made the less active choice. Not only are you likely to get to where you need to go quicker, but the brisk walk or climb will have helped you accumulate some more of your recommended dose of daily physical activity and improve your health.  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ