When weight is an encumbrance; avoidance of stairs by different demographic groups

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BACKGROUND: Locomotion is an energy costly behaviour, particularly when it entails raising weight against gravity. Minimization of locomotor costs appears a universal default. Avoidance of stair climbing helps humans minimise their energetic costs. In public access settings, demographic subgroups that raise more 'dead' weight than their comparison groups when climbing are more likely to avoid stairs by choosing the escalator. Individuals who minimise stair costs at work, however, can accumulate a deficit in energy expenditure in daily life with potential implications for weight gain. This paper tests the generality of avoidance of stairs in pedestrians encumbered by additional weight in three studies.

METHODS: Pedestrian choices for stairs or the alternative were audited by trained observers who coded weight status, presence of large bags and sex for each pedestrian. Sex-specific silhouettes for BMIs of 25 facilitated coding of weight status. Choices between stairs and a lift to ascend and descend were coded in seven buildings (n = 26,981) and at an outdoor city centre site with the same alternatives (n = 7,433). A further study audited choices to ascend when the alternative to stairs was a sloped ramp in two locations (n = 16,297). Analyses employed bootstrapped logistic regression (1000 samples).

RESULTS: At work and the city centre site, the overweight, those carrying a large bag and females avoided both stair climbing and descent more frequently than their comparison groups. The final study revealed greater avoidance of stairs in these demographic subgroups when the alternative means of ascent was a sloped ramp.

DISCUSSION: Minimization of the physiological costs of transport-related walking biases behaviour towards avoidance of stair usage when an alternative is available. Weight carried is an encumbrance that can deter stair usage during daily life. This minimization of physical activity costs runs counter to public health initiatives to increase activity to improve population health.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0228044
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2020


  • Body Weight/physiology
  • Demography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Locomotion/physiology
  • Male
  • Workplace


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