Stairway to Better Health

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how i stopped riding the elevator and learned to love the stairs

by lorraine duffy merkl

one of the two elevators in my building is out of commission and it's the best thing that ever happened to me.

the lifts are getting a lift, if you will. i'm glad our board approved the improvement, but the working elevator has been programmed to start at the bottom (a.k.a. basement) and go all the way up to the top (21 stories) floor by floor, and then make its way back down again in the same fashion.

since my motto is: immediate gratification takes too long, it's understandable why i've started taking the stairs. true it's only four flights, and even then i'm still a little huffy and puffy when i reach my apartment, but i'm lovin' it.

to think, free exercise has been literally right outside my front door, yet i ignored it to pay for formal workout equipment, which has included weights, kettlebells and elastic bands. truth be told, no matter how gung-ho i was at first, in no time at all, boredom with the gadgets set in.

until i "discovered" the stairs, my only saving grace has been that i love to walk and, luckily, our city streets, like nancy sinatra's boots, are made for walkin'. it's also apparently being recreated for climbing, riding and giving us some much-needed calisthenics, according to the book active design guidelines promoting physical activity and health in design, which was created by the collaborative efforts of new york's health, planning, design and architecture agencies, as well as academic institutions from across the country. it's available at

"the guidelines are a set of diverse best practices, both large and small, to enhance the health and quality of life for people in new york and elsewhere. they encourage professionals such as architects, urban planners, landscape architects and others to incorporate physical activity options into their designs," said department of design and construction commissioner david j. burney, faia.

a lay person can benefit from reading the guide as well. i was fascinated by how environmental design has always played a crucial role in improving public health. in 1857, the construction of central park provided open space and fresh air for a densely populated, urban landscape of dirty streets and disease-breeding tenements. in 1904, the subway helped disperse the population from overcrowded lower manhattan.

today, we're hoping for a similar effect when the second avenue subway finally sees completion. the book also highlights already designed sites-such as the high line park-and programs like summer streets, where park avenue is closed off for biking, both of which promote keeping fit.

the main goal, of course, is to help fight obesity, especially for our city's children, who need to learn that running after the mr. softee truck does not constitute exercise.

i also picked up a few design tricks from the book: prominent placement, natural light and artwork increase the appeal of a staircase; providing a secure bicycle storage room encourages daily ridership; and a brightly lit gym signals the importance of physical activity.

so now, if you meet someone who doesn't think new york is a place where you can stay fit unless you pay thousands for a health club membership, just tell 'em to take a walk? or at least the stairs.


lorraine duffy merkl's debut novel, fat chick, from the vineyard press, is available at and

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