UAB research: incentives can improve stair use, health in employees

Given the opportunity to earn incentives, employees will use the stairs more often, and thus improve their health, according to UAB study.

It can be difficult to find time to hit the gym during a busy workweek, but good health can be as close as the nearest stairwell. According to new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), incentives encourage employees to be more physically active.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites many proven benefits to taking the stairs at work. It requires little additional time compared to using the elevator, and there is no need to change into “workout clothes” to get in some exercise. Building codes require stairs, so the resources are likely there.

Joseph E. Schumacher, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, said previous findings support the idea that stair usage can positively impact the public’s health, but there was a need to examine how to engage people to actively demonstrate the behavior.

“We know stair usage in the workplace is a viable, cost-effective way to improve public health,” said Schumacher, lead study author of new research published in the February 2013 edition of Rehabilitation Psychology. “We also know that reward and incentive programs are highly valued and popular, and they can be adapted to targeted health and wellness behaviors. So we wanted to look at whether or not adding monetary benefits to stair utilization would increase usage.”

For the research, Schumacher and his team identified a business that was utilizing an incentive-based health engagement company, ChipRewards, in its workplace wellness program. ChipRewards gives individuals points for engaging in healthy behavior. Each earned point equals the value of a penny, and employees can earn up to $150 worth of points per year; points accrued can be used to purchase prizes online.

The number of total stair transactions for all members for all days monitored increased from 5,070 to 38,900. Additionally, the increase was sustained over a six-month period.

For this study, stair use was added as a new target behavior to the employer’s existing health incentive program, in which a total of 216 employees participated. Each time an employee used their company key card to enter and exit the stairway (taking at least two minutes for the trip), they would receive 10 points, with a maximum allowance of 20 points per day. Bonus points were given to those who took the stairs at least twice a day for an entire week.

“We reviewed stair usage data from 129 workdays prior to our intervention, and 129 workdays once it had been implemented,” Schumacher said. We found that the average number of stair transactions per day rose from 39 to 301 with an incentive, which is more than a 600 percent increase.”

The number of total stair transactions for all members for all days monitored increased from 5,070 to 38,900. Additionally, the increase was sustained over a six-month period. UAB clinical psychologist and study co-author Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., explained that this means stair utilization became a routine part of employees’ daily lives.

“The fact that the increase was so great, and it remained high over time, is quite different than typical programs that show an initial increase in activity, but then a rapid drop-off after approximately three months,” said Klapow, who also works for ChipRewards.

The overall cost of incentives for the program was $3,739.30, or $17.55 per member on average.

“This research is a very good example of taking a basic public health promotion concept and utilizing technology and science to increase the potency,” Klapow added. “It further demonstrates that incentives alone or technology alone are not always the answer to increased health behavior.”  

Schumacher said that while this study confirmed that stair-taking behavior could be substantially increased among employees in the workplace by providing contingent monitoring incentives, application to other worksite contexts is necessary to generalize these effects.

The bottom line, Schumacher said, is that the results are very positive.

“This strategy of incentivizing stair use can be easily incorporated across the country into many office buildings and companies, where people spend most of their days, and help improve the health of millions,” Schumacher concluded.