Of all the mysteries in life, taking the lift – or elevator if you are in the US - down is surely one of the greatest. I was in a car park recently and watched an entire family waiting for the lift to go down one floor to the exit. Although they were all significantly overweight, they were clearly able-bodied, so there was no obvious reason why they needed to wait for the lift. By coincidence, I saw them again about three hours later this time waiting for the lift to go up one floor, all of them eating ice-creams (it was a freezing cold day!) Unfortunately, they are a perfect illustration of the sort of sedentary behaviour which is now the norm in most developed countries, including the UK. If you doubt this, the next time you are in a station or an airport and there is a choice between stairs and the escalator (or the moving walkway), see how many choose the stairs.
But why do we choose the easy way? Part of the explanation is that we don’t really think about it. Most people use the escalator or lift and, since we have a strong tendency to do what other members of the group do, we to step onto the escalator without a second thought. Since we are creatures of habit, when we have done this a few times, we tend to go on doing it. With respect to that particular behaviour we are quite literally “mindless”. But what would happen if we were reminded of what we already know; that taking the stairs would be better for us?
Some years ago researchers looked at exactly this question. They located hidden cameras close to escalators in a busy station. There were two escalators – one up and the other down – with a set of stairs between them. As you might imagine, most people opted for the escalators and initially almost no one chose the stair option. Then the researchers placed a notice at the bottom of the stairs with a message to the effect that regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease and prolongs active life. They carried on filming. After a few days they noticed more people were using the stairs. Regular commuters who used the station every day, would stand at the bottom of the steps in some sort of decision anxiety as to whether to use the stairs or the escalator and gradually began to opt for the stairs. Then the researchers took the message down. For a while, those who were choosing the stairs carried on, but gradually they slipped back into their old ways and started using the escalators again.
What can we learn from this? It seems that many of us are perfectly willing to make changes in our behaviour, but that habit and awareness prevents us from doing so. Put simply, we have a strong tendency to do what we have always done. To change behaviour, we firstly have to raise our awareness and then practice new behaviours. The best way to do this is to self-monitor. Studies have shown that individuals who keep a daily food and activity diary – even without being on a specific diet – are more likely to lose weight. It’s because they are constantly aware of what they should be doing and avoiding.
Try it and you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make. Not only will it give you a much better sense of control, you’ll avoid the sort of mindless behaviour which might otherwise induce you to wait for a lift going down!
Dr D Ashton
22nd March 2011