Will Michael Bloomberg's stair-climbing campaign make a dent in obesity?

The New York City mayor's latest public health initiative is just a suggestion

Mike Bloomberg hates this hotdog
(Image credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Michael Bloomberg's attempt to ban massive cups of sugary sodas got blocked by a judge, but the New York City mayor is not giving up on his campaign to battle obesity. On Wednesday, the billionaire health evangelist announced the latest in a long series of public wellness initiatives — encouraging people to swear off elevators and take the stairs.

"I have five floors in my house, I take the stairs," Bloomberg said, at an announcement at the New School in Greenwich Village.

The backbone of the program is the creation of the Center for Active Design, a nonprofit, public-private partnership dedicated to promoting changes to buildings and city streets that will encourage people to be more physically active. The organization — the first of its kind in the nation — also will promote improved access to healthy food in neighborhoods where it can be hard to find.

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Advocates say making it easier for people to take the stairs will help them get a tad more fit as they go about their normal routines. Local legislation is being proposed to require building owners to make it easier for people to find stairs, and post signs encouraging them to forego elevators to "burn calories, not electricity."

"Since the invention of the elevator, stairs became relegated to purely [escape] during a fire," David Burney, who heads the city Department of Design and Construction, tells The Wall Street Journal. "So they're minimal in size, they're in the corner of buildings, often dark without windows. So what we'd like to see is the stair being brought back."

Bloomberg's past initiatives — including assaults on cigarettes, trans fats, and sugary drinks — have been controversial, triggering complaints that he was imposing nanny-state rules on people's lives. The mayor says he hopes this program will be an exception, with no backlash.

He might be in luck. Here's James Joyner at Outside the Beltway:

Now, I don't know what all of this costs. Implementation might be more burdensome than it seems at first blush. If so, I might oppose it on those grounds. But, otherwise, this strikes me as a perfectly sensible move. And, unlike some of his previous moves, there's no obvious infringement on the liberty of the citizenry here to put this into "nanny state" territory. [Outside the Beltway]

Actually, maybe Bloomberg should brace for at least a little pushback. Hamilton Nolan at Gawker says the problem with Bloomberg's latest project isn't that it will be a burden to people. It just won't do any good, because you'd have to climb stairs for six hours and 30 minutes to burn the calories in a pound of body fat. "My friend," he says, "you are not even going to come close to that."

Yes, walking up a flight of stairs is better for you, physically speaking, than taking an elevator. You expend more calories climbing a flight of stairs, yes. But the gains that you will make from doing so are negligible. Taking the stairs, as a habit in the course of your day to day life, will make you more fit in the same way that stopping to pick pennies up off the ground will make you more rich. [Gawker]

Still, Bloomberg's defenders say, what's the harm? "You're still free to take the elevator," says Sophie Kleeman at Gothamist. "No one will be standing by the doors with a pair of nun-chucks to ward you off."

Bloomberg is just encouraging New Yorkers to be a little bit greener, and a little bit more active, in the name of public health. If you don't like it, you can always move to one of the many places in America where nobody cares if you live like a slug.

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