A long time ago, I made a simple physical activity rule for myself. It requires no software solution, no tracking device, no Ph.D. in biochemistry or biomechanics and no consultation with an expert. I have no idea how much health or fitness I’ve gained during the last two decades that I’ve followed my rule, but I’m guessing that it’s significant. The rule is this: “Never take an escalator or an elevator when there’s a set of stairs nearby.” That’s it, the whole thing in a nutshell.
If you look at my rule in isolation, it’s not all that impressive. By taking the stairs, I might burn a couple of extra calories, raise my heart rate by a few beats and maybe bring my blood glucose level down a point or two. Nothing to brag about and certainly nothing in terms of improving athletic performance.
But this isolated, reductionist view doesn’t tell much of a story. We’ve got to look at the larger context. That is, I’ve been following this rule consistently for at least 20 years. So do the math: If I encounter the escalator-stair choice once per day on average, that adds up to 7,300 sets of stairs that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise. Compare this with the number of stairs that wouldn’t be climbed by a compulsive escalator rider; that adds up to some genuine physiological pay-off.
What’s interesting to me is the way that my rule has become a fully integrated part of my life. Over time, it has become completely invisible to me. In fact, it has zero impact on my consciousness or my lifestyle. There is no hardship and absolutely no inconvenience. Sometimes I find that I need to lug a heavy bag or package up a couple of flights, but I’ve adapted to that as well. It almost never crosses my mind that things might be easier if I took the free ride. I rarely, if ever, think about it.
But what about the flip side? What’s the rule that others are following when they face the choice of which route to take when navigating the urban environment? Surely there’s a rule at work here too, even if it’s unconscious. Every time I go to the airport I see thousands of people opting for the escalators over the stairs. They do it reflexively, with the same unconscious ease that I bring to my decision. But what are they assuming? How did they create their rule?
If we deconstruct the thoughts of our escalator-riders, we’d discover a rule like this: “When faced with a choice between physical ease and physical exertion, choose the former.” This rule, once absorbed into the body and driven into the unconscious by repetition, becomes a tremendous time-saver and of course, a labor saver. One no longer needs to make a decision; simply take the easier path and move on. Let the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies deal with the consequences.
My rule works for me, but there’s a lot more to it than just health and fitness. Sure, I’m making some modest gains every time I take the stairs, but that’s not the real payoff. What’s really going on here is something more existential, a statement about my place in the world and the role I choose to play. Taking the stairs is an act of rebellion, an expression of my animal independence. Every time I take the stairs, I make a statement: “I refuse to be seduced by the body-hostile inventions of a culture gone mad. I will use and enjoy my body as I see fit.”
Here we find something of an entirely different order, something bigger than weight loss and medically-defined health. It’s about meaning. My choice is an assertion of identity and my position in the world. It’s an expression of independence, autonomy and personal power. Every time I take the stairs, I create a sense of mastery. I feel power and control over my circumstances. I am not a helpless rat in an urban cage, but a thriving and independent animal.
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has performed and documented numerous studies on “learned helplessness,” the condition in which animals, (including humans) develop a sense of apathy and powerlessness. Animals that are exposed to inescapable stresses eventually lose their resilience and give up their natural exercise of power. In contrast, animals that are given an escape will maintain their resilience.
For me, the stairs are an escape and an option, my chance to exercise mastery and develop resilience. The world can stress me all it wants with traffic, airports, security screening and long periods of immobility, but when I get to the stairs, I can and will exercise my choice. I will take the path of a good animal. And that will make all the difference.