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Up the Down Staircase

Improving Campus Health, One Step at a Time

Asst. Profs. Cynthia Ferrara, right, and Deirdra Murphy encourage students to take the stairs in O’Leary Library.

03/31/2008
By For more information, contact media@uml.edu or 978-934-3224

In buildings of a certain era, elevators are prominent but it can be hard to find a staircase.

Once found, the staircase is likely to be dingy, dusty, narrow and steep.

That’s really a shame, think Asst. Profs. Deirdra Murphy and Cynthia Ferrara of the Physical Therapy Department in the School of Health and Environment (SHE), because taking the stairs is one of the most convenient ways to increase one’s physical activity.

The Healthy Campus initiative, a dean’s signature program funded by SHE, includes a stair program, to see if stair usage can be increased. The “guinea pig” stairway is in O’Leary Library and the first step is to set a baseline of current use through monitors mounted on the walls. During the summer, Lowell High School students will work with the Revolving Museum to make the stairway more attractive and appealing, including better signage.

“Most stairways are afterthoughts or safety areas, not designed to encourage an increase in physical activity,” says Murphy. “Retrofitting an area is very challenging, whereas new construction can be both green and healthy. The librarians have been our project champions, advocates for change.”

“We didn’t realize there would be so many people involved in the project and so excited about it,” adds Ferrara. “Ours is an unusually comprehensive study of health on campus, not just about individual walking or stair use, but how to develop an activity-friendly atmosphere and easy access.”

Starting with a large-scale survey of faculty, staff and students about activity levels and food choices, the project has included a report on biking and walking accessibility, focus groups on barriers to exercise, nutritional posters and featured foods in Aramark facilities, new campus maps with walking and biking routes marked, coordination with the Healthy Way Task Force in Lowell and, now, the stair project. Coming in spring ߝ a borrow-a-bike program housed at the Campus Recreation Center.

Back to the stairs.

“One of the stated barriers to exercise is having enough time ߝ it’s hard to get to the gym regularly,” says Murphy. “If you take the stairs in the normal course of the day or walk across campus to meetings, you get your 30 minutes of daily exercise and you avoid parking hassles. Probably, you also arrive in a better mood.”