Architecture's 'active design' can combat office-induced obesity

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Walking up stairs for two minutes a day can prevent weight gain, a study says.

The push to reverse the obesity epidemic and promote physical fitness is spilling into design and architecture and beginning to target one of the nation's most sedentary environments: the office.

"Active design" -- the architectural principle of creating spaces that encourage healthy lifestyles -- is gaining popularity as more cities and companies join the fight and embrace healthy initiatives and "green" measures.

New York -- the city that banned trans fats in restaurants and will soon ban sales of large sugary drinks in cups -- adopted Active Design Guidelines in 2006. That has sparked interest among architects and planners, even amid a sluggish economy. With the help of a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city is mentoring 14 other cities, including Philadelphia, Tucson, Nashville and Seattle, to improve the built environment to reduce obesity.

"How do you get people moving?" asks Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "If exercise and everyday activity is the mantra, how do you, through design, get people to exercise? ... There is a direct relation between the built environment and people's lifestyles."

History has proved it. Architecture played a major role in defeating infectious diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis in the 19th and 20th centuries by designing better buildings, streets, clean-water systems and parks.

Today, obesity is the threat. More than a third of American adults, teens and children are obese, or roughly 30 pounds over a healthy weight.

"It's very new to people," says Joan Blumenfeld, an architect at Perkins+Will who has worked on active interior design in offices and public buildings. "Now interior designers are getting interested in it and in health in workplaces. â€1/8 It makes (workers) feel valued, and a lot of this stuff doesn't really cost anything because it's where you locate things."

Aside from obvious incentives such as on-site health clubs, some of the features of "active design":

- Stairs, stairs, stairs.(AT) In most buildings, they're hidden in stairwells behind fire doors because they are designed primarily as emergency exits. Exposed staircases that connect to different parts of a building encourage people to use them, Blumenfeld says.

Studies show that if the average American adult climbed stairs for just two minutes a day (six to eight flights), enough calories would be burned to prevent average annual weight gain, says Dr. Karen Lee, director of built environment and healthy housing for New York City's health department.

Brightly colored signs showing a figure climbing stairs have gone up near elevators in buildings across the city, she says. The message: "Burn Calories, Not Electricity."

Some clients are paying to upgrade stairs. New buildings are being designed to make the stairs more prominent than elevators when people enter the lobby -- a feature that is more adaptable in low-rise buildings.

The new Queens Elmhurst Library will feature a grand staircase and emphasize stair use throughout the building.

- Get up and walk.(AT) In offices, the push is on to remove printers from individual desks. That forces workers to get up and walk a few paces. Coffee machines are also being moved to central pantries that may require walking to another section.

"This is not just to annoy people but to also add value," Bell says. "They can socialize with co-workers."

- Shared space.(AT) When workers are in a communal space rather than a cubicle or office, it "makes people get up and encourages people to be more collaborative," Blumenfeld says.

- Outdoor space.(AT) Trails or stairs to outside work areas encourage workers to be as mobile as the electronic devices they do their work on.

"Providing an outdoor space of some sort, whether it's a plaza or a deck, encourages you to walk around on a nice day," says Barry Hersh, associate professor at NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate.

Office furniture company Haworth rebuilt its global headquarters in Holland, Mich., under the principles of active design. Besides environmentally sound features such as energy efficiency, natural light and clean air, Haworth wanted to open spaces to encourage movement and interaction, says Kurt Vander Schuur, corporate brand director.

Before the redesign, "We had 90(PERCENT) individual space," he says. "In the new building, we have 55(PERCENT) individual and 45(PERCENT) shared."

Before, less than a third of workers had access to natural light and now 90(PERCENT) do. "Having daylight encourages more movement in the office," Vander Schuur says.

The central feature of the 300,000-square-foot building is a three-story atrium, an open stairway and a big public space that is designed like a pit or sunken living room. The Starbucks is there and so is the "tech bar" to help workers with their computer problems.

"We're trying to attract young workers," Vander Schuur says. "Everybody cares about the health and wellness of their workers."

Caring for workers also can help to reduce health care costs for employers.

Bell recounts vivid illustrations of the connection between design and physical activity he saw at a presentation years ago. One slide showed an escalator -- not stairs -- leading up to a second-story health club in a Southern California strip mall. Another slide showed a man driving alongside his dog, holding the leash out the car window, in a neighborhood without sidewalks.

"Design and obesity are interrelated," Bell says.

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