If on an escalator, especially on visits to London for meetings, I always go left and vigorously climb the escalator. I do have favourites, such as the Holborn underground escalator which is the longest in London. If I feel really fit I’ll take two stairs at a time, it’s a race for me!

You can get quite a workout on these long escalators, especially if carrying a backpack or briefcase. Impressive metrics can be seen on your fitness tracker or smartphone.

Everybody knows the tube etiquette that escalator passengers must stand on the right, leaving the left-hand side free for walkers. However, according to a 2011 University of Greenwich study, only a quarter of escalator-users opted to walk upstairs which caused a backlog to build up at the bottom while people waited to stand on the right.   So in Janurary 2016, Transport for London ran a trial to ease congestion by telling passengers to stand on both sides of the escalator. Although climbing was not banned, rush-hour passengers were greeted by staff members with megaphones, stationed at the bottom of one of the up escalators, ordering them to stand on both sides. This experiment was unpopular by some users with outrage on Twitter. The full report is awaited. I’d favour an escalator redesign, if possible, rather than standing still!

underground chris oliver

Other countries are also rethinking escalator use; although for them safety is the main concern rather than efficiency! Last summer both Hong Kong and Japan launched campaigns urging travellers to stand still, hold on to the hand rails and not to walk, while using the escalators. Japan also went one step further, suggesting that there should be one free step between each person to ensure the safest possible journey.

Here in London most people seem not to have noticed the measures and carry on as normal: non movers standing on the right, while those more inclined to climb, march on the left, with their heads down, headphones on, inwardly sighing when anyone blocks their path, whether by accident or not.

Recently there has been a disagreement between scientists about how much hitting 10,000 steps a day really affects health, but there is no argument that being more active is a good thing in general.  This is especially true for many Londoners who work long, sedentary hours where taking the stairs is a vital part of their approach to wellbeing, allowing a few more steps to be recorded on those ubiquitous activity trackers.

underground escalator

Fascinated by stairs last autumn, I ran a twelve day Twitter campaign, #TwelveStairsofChristmas, aimed to increase Physical Activity over Christmas and New Year. A period which is known to contribute to considerable sedentary behaviour, while stair climbing is well known to enhance physical activity. A “12 days of Christmas” Twitter campaign was intended to perhaps boost physical activity globally by getting people to think about climbing stairs instead of taking the easy option. Pictures were chosen (with permission from Google and Wikipedia). Tweets were set up to run daily during the twelve days of Christmas with a tweet buffering service; Buffer, which can be run from the web or via an App. I did experiment with promoting the campaign with some paid purchased Twitter promoted tweets, but quickly realised this can be expensive, just 24hours cost over £25, so most users would find this unsustainable. I used a very effective service to measure the impact of the campaign; Symplur.  The goal of the Symplur Healthcare Hashtag Project is to make Twitter more accessible for the healthcare community; it indexes any health hashtag and measures the metrics of a campaign. The #TwelveStairsofChristmas campaign metrics can be seen at here under analytics. Overall for this small campaign there were 164 Tweets, 91 Participants, 745,889 Twitter page Impressions. Detailed #TwelveStairsofChristmas analytics here. It’s extremely difficult to measure the impact of this kind of broadcast Twitter campaign on individuals’ lives. However there were some retweets and direct messages saying what a good idea the #TwelveStairsofChristmas campaign was. Although, I’m not sure how many people would have seen the Tweet on Christmas day!


Mutrie et Al stated that “Stair climbing provides a useful model for accumulation of lifestyle physical activity, although it is unlikely that individuals would climb stairs continuously for 10 minutes. Like walking, stair climbing requires no equipment and is freely available to virtually all of the population. Unlike walking, however, stair climbing is a physiologically vigorous physical activity. Stair climbing requires 8.6 times more energy expenditure than the resting state in the laboratory, and an even higher rate has been reported in the field. Indeed, a 10-year prospective study of middle-aged men estimated that the energy expended in vigorous activity that reduced coronary heart disease incidence by almost two-thirds was equivalent to as little as 7 minutes a day of stair climbing. There is a second, less publicized benefit of the vigorous nature of stair climbing. An 80-kg man, i.e. overweight, climbing a typical 3-meter flight of stairs in his home 10 times a day would expend ∼37 kcal/d, equating to 13,443 kcal/yr. This energy expenditure would be equivalent to more than 4½ days’ worth of food over the course of a year. Studies in the United States and the United Kingdom have consistently shown that interventions to increase the accumulation of lifestyle physical activity by climbing stairs rather than using the escalators are effective. Typically, a poster positioned at the point-of-choice between the stairs and escalator encourages travelers to take the stairs for the benefit of their health. These point-of-choice prompts significantly increase stair use in public places such as shopping centers, bus and train stations, airports and the workplace”.

So next time, go left and charge the escalator.

It is known that:

  • 7 minutes of stair climbing a day halves your risk of a heart attack over a 10 year period
  • Regular stair climbing aids weight loss
  • Regular stair climbing is free exercise
  • Regular stair climbing lowers cholesterol
  • Regular stair climbing keeps you fit
  • Regular stair climbing provides daily exercise


– Prof Chris Oliver

Useful references