Challenge: For 7 days, take the stairs whenever possible.
Why 7 days? Why not a 30 day challenge?
- It does not take 30 days to form a habit—there’s not a shred of scientific evidence to support that claim.
- People create 30 day challenges because everyone else does. Otherwise, 30 days is an arbitrary amount of time.
- It’s better for you psychologically to overachieve your goals than to fall short of them.
After a 7 day challenge, you’re more likely to think, “I can do more than that!” I’m on day 4 of my 7 day stairs challenge, and I’m already planning on extending it. This challenge has been particularly fun for me, as my apartment is on the 7th floor. My heart is always pounding by the time I reach the top!
Active Living Is More Than Exercise
In writing my next book (on losing weight with mini habits), I’ve been researching how life used to be before so many of us were overweight. After all, given the obesity spike in the last 100 years, something has clearly gone wrong in society for such a sudden and drastic unhealthy change.1
A key (perhaps underemphasized) difference in the last century has been our increased ability and preference to remain motionless. I’m not talking about exercise, but about how we live when we aren’t exercising. In the 1800s, people had to tend to the fields, milk cows, churn butter, hunt animals, and walk as their main mode of transportation. It was a lot of effort just to prepare and eat a single meal, and they ate to live rather than live to eat.
In modern society, meals are effortless and nearly instant if desired. Cars and planes transport us places as we’re frozen in place.
We no longer have to put forth physical effort in order to survive.
Our lives now resemble NASA missions in space. Astronauts take exercise equipment with them to prevent or slow the muscle loss that results from the lack of gravity to challenge their muscles. That’s exactly what the modern gymnasium is! Our gyms are meant to offset our otherwise effortless lifestyle.
Comparing the typical gym workout to our ancestor’s lifestyle, it’s a completely different thing. Our ancestors lived a consistently active life with varying intensity. Today, we try to cram everything into one 30 minute ish block of time per day, and that’s if we’re doing really well. If you’re in the gym every day, you’re considered a “gym rat.”
According to Nielsen data over the past several years, the Average American watches about 5 hours a day of television, and most don’t do it while jogging in place.
Elevators and Escalators
Elevators save us from the dreaded staircase, but you know what’s really insane about this? There are “stairmasters” at the gym! We simulate stairs! Quite a few people avoid the stairs in everyday life, but use the stairmaster at the gym. Think about how weird that is.
The purpose of an elevator should be to move heavy objects up floors, not people (unless they are medically unable to take the stairs). If a building has 40 stories, elevators make sense for pedestrian usage, but most buildings don’t have more than 10 floors, and in those cases, if you are able to take the stairs and aren’t in a huge hurry, it’s in your best interest to take them.
In my observation, when there is an escalator and stairs, and not only do 90% of people choose the escalator, they STAND STILL while it transports them. People in a hurry will step onto that escalator and stop moving as if it’s against their religion to move as the machine moves.
It seems like the goal of modern society is to be as motionless as possible while machines do our work for us. Elevators. Escalators. Dishwashers. Washing machines. Microwaves. Cars. Planes. Trains.
I’m not making a big deal about any one thing, but about the whole idea. Our culture has practically demonized activity and glorified inactivity.
“THE ELEVATOR IS OUT OF ORDER?! FIX IT NOW!”
~ Person who forgot about stairs
If people in my apartment building knew I’ve been walking past the elevator and purposefully walking seven floors up the stairwell, they’d think I’m strange. I guarantee I’m the only person on the 7th floor in this complex who takes the stairs. I’m the crazy one because I’m using my body to move instead of letting a machine move me. That’s our culture.
Why do something when you can have a machine do it for you? Are you crazy? You don’t have to do anything if you use the elevator. Just walk in, press a button, and you’ll be on the 7th floor in no time!
Does Exercise Make Up For General Inactivity?
Exercise is great! I have a gym membership and use it frequently. But is it enough?
A couple of major studies suggest that exercise isn’t enough to overcome the lethal consequences of general inactivity. Even if you’re exceptional and put in 30 minutes a day at the gym, it’s not enough to overcome the increase in all-cause mortality that results from being inactive most of the day.
How does it make sense to think that the 30 minute gym period matters more than the other 23.5 hours? In life, we are defined by what we do most, so it makes sense that a mostly sedentary person will look like or at least feel like a mostly sedentary person.
That said, the body is amazing at adapting to the problems we create for it, and many of us do get away with mostly sedentary behavior combined with occasional bouts of intense exercise. But the less you take care of your body, the less it will be able to take care of itself and you in the long run. Even if you feel okay now despite being an elevator and chair addict, you have the opportunity to feel better by increasing your general level of activity.
Is This the Hidden Cause of Obesity?
How many calories do you burn outside of the gym? That might be the important question to ask, because experts say that NEAT (or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) can vary between people by up to 2000 kcals every day!
One hour of jogging will burn about 400 calories. But NEAT (non-exercise calorie burning) can vary by up to 2000 calories. Even on days that you exercise, your body stills burns way more total calories by NEAT—it’s a bigger slice of the calorie-burning pie.
Say that exercise and non-exercise calorie burning are 400 and 1600 calories per day, respectively. If you improve your exercise calorie-burning by 10%, you’ll burn 40 more calories. But if you improve your non-exercise calorie-burning by 10%, you’ll burn 160 more calories. It’s something to think about, especially since people tend to emphasize exercise more than their general activity level throughout the day. They’ll go to the gym, but they take the elevator to get there and back.
Your fitness and metabolism are continually impacted by what you’re doing. While you’re sitting at your desk, you have the choice to sit still, move your legs up and down, squeeze a ball in your hand, take push-up breaks, or tense your abs. These small adjustments can add up to a big difference in your health over time if you’re able to change your NEAT rate.
One sure way to improve your NEAT rate is by always taking the stairs if you’re able. I’m not asking you to add anything else to your busy schedule—this takes no extra time out of your day and you’ll be faster than the elevator more often than you’d think—I’m only asking that you choose to use the body you’re blessed to have so that you’ll be able to keep it healthier and functioning well for longer.
Centenarians Are Active People
Until she died earlier this year, Jeralean Talley was the oldest person alive at 116 years of age. She went bowling until she was 104 and fishing until she was 114. Fishing isn’t exactly an intense activity and is not exercise, but it is still active, and far more so than sitting on the couch like many others do as they age. It’s common to hear of centaurians being active into their 100s. My grandfather is 95 years old, and he still rides his motorcycle. Active bodies thrive as inactive bodies struggle.
Living longer is not the point—when you live to be 116, it means your body works as it should and has been for a long time.
Small Wins Create Bigger Wins
It’s the small things in life that compound into big wins (or losses). I’ve been climbing 7 flights of stairs every time I leave my apartment, and I can honestly say that I enjoy it more than taking the elevator. And what impact is this mini-workout having on my body? It’s impossible to know exactly, but I know it’s better than the elevator! It’s more interesting to take the lonely stairwell, and every time I do it, I feel good about it. I think you’ll have the same experience.
For the next 7 days, choose the stairs. If you want to do more than the stairs, go right ahead. Bonus challenge: In your 7 days, always choose the more active choice. Take the stairs, park in the spot furthest away, walk instead of drive, etc.
Like a mini habit, this challenge is not a ceiling, but an accessible floor you can reach that will improve your life in subtle, but unexpectedly powerful ways.
Once you begin taking the stairs, you might find your philosophy about how and when to use your body changing. You might dance more often. You might not look for the best parking spot. You might see a hill as a fun challenge and not something to be avoided. In order to change our culture, we must first change ourselves.
If you don’t know of any stairs in your path, take the challenge anyway. I bet you’ll run into unexpected stairs or another opportunity to choose an active choice. Use the link below to tweet out your participation![Tweet “I’m Taking The 7 Day Stairs Challenge!”]
Update: Still Doing it!
It’s about 3 weeks later, and I’m still taking the stairs. It’s already noticeably improved my conditioning. I don’t know why, but it’s so much more fun than the elevator! Maybe I feel special because I’m the only person in the apartment building who does this.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a lifelong habit. That shows the power of simple experimentation (and no, you don’t have to do experiments for 30 days!).