Taking the stairs is good for you. You can burn more calories climbing to the third floor than jogging home afterwards. But most people don't think of stairs that way. They're not for exercise, conventional thinking tells us. They're what you take because you have to—when there's no elevator, or there's an emergency.
A new U.K. project hopes we can get people to think differently about stairs by mapping and rating the world's stairwells for their calorie-burning potential. StepJockey wants to create a giant informal fitness network. Call it the universal StairMaster.
It's simple: Go to the site and put in your location. Add the number of steps in a staircase, and the height of each step (if you know it). The site will calculate the calories an average person would use climbing one floor, and let you print out free posters showing this information in graphic form. You can then place these signs near the stairs and elevator, gently "nudging" people to take a different route.
Nina Whitby, a project manager for StepJockey, says environmental calorie labeling is the logical extension of food labeling. If you're going to tell people how many calories are in a bag of chips, you might tell them how they can burn it off. "The idea is that labeling the physical environment really helps people in terms of increasing well-being," she says. "If you give people the correct prompts at the right time, you can have a big impact."
In behavioral economics, StepJockey's signs are known as "nudges"—discrete informational interventions that appear at moments of maximum potential impact (in this case, when people are waiting for the elevator). And tests show the approach could be quite effective. StepJockey, which is funded by the British government, installed signs in three big office buildings in London, and found that stair-use increased 29% after 250,000 journeys.
In addition to printing your own posters, you can order professionally made plastic versions. These are fitted with automatic connectivity to an accompanying app, so people can track their stair-exercise each day (you burn energy coming downstairs, but only about a third as much as going up). Android phone-users "tap in" using near field communication tags in the signs. iPhone users can scan QR codes.
Since launching in November, StepJockey has rated about 2,000 buildings so far. It's now working on new language versions, and offering ways for companies to customize signs for their own logos and surroundings. In time, the startup wants to incorporate all kinds of locations, including subways and steps to public buildings.
"It's a very easy, seamless way to build physical activity into your working day," Whitby says. "It's making the world that you live in your gym. It's about getting everyone to think about the physical environment as a place to be active."