Stairway to Health, or, Let’s Judge People for Not Taking the Stairs.

So here’s the thing. I’ve worked at several different places, and am now going to school at a place promoting the ubiquitous Stairway to Health campaign.

And here’s the second thing: people are really goddamn preachy when it comes to taking the stairs. I was at work recently when an older man, likely in his 70s, made the morally reprehensible decision to take the elevator down one floor. And when he exited that elevator, the tidal wave of vitriolic spew that issued forth from my young, elevator-taking companions etched a new high-water mark on the jetty of my astonishment. Because an old man in the hospital had chosen the elevator over the stairs.

And a third thing: not only am I fat, I have a weird heart condition (since I was 15 — before I was fat, for the record.) It’s an apparently non-threatening arrhythmia that occurs randomly, and I went to the cardiologist when I was 18 (and still not fat, again, for the record), but no definitive diagnosis was given. Just that, you know, it hasn’t killed me yet, so that’s good. I was rushed to the ER for it a couple years ago, and again with chest pains a few months ago, which turned out to be a false alarm, but which I had to take seriously because of this weird heart thing.

Fourth thing? I just hate climbing stairs. I’ve had foot injuries, knee injuries, and just a plain lot of weight to haul around, such that, in addition to already taking the stairs daily because I live in a walk-up (with the laundry room in the basement), I am just not real enthused about forcing myself to take additional stairs at every opportunity in some bid for moral superiori — I mean, for the sake of my health.

Last semester, when I decided to walk up three large flights of stairs with my schoolmates to visit a professor, we all got to the top somewhat winded. I thought to myself, “Huh, I feel funny,” but I just caught my breath along with everyone else and carried on. Ten minutes later, I felt a sudden, chill-inducing thunk-thud in my chest. It was the familar feeling of my heart recovering normal rhythm. That’s when I realized — I’d been having a tachycardia episode and hadn’t even felt it (these things normally knock me backward, as though the wind has been punched out of me) and it was, apparently, brought on by climbing the goddamn stairs.

As it is, I have to climb a fair number of obligatory stairs each day. (If you live in a city as inaccessible as Toronto, you’ll understand what I mean by “obligatory stairs.”) Whenever I go home to visit my parents in suburban Oregon, I am amazed at how easy the life is. There’s no hauling 100 lbs of groceries home on foot and then carrying them up the stairs. There’s no sprinting for the subway or streetcar. There are no obligatory stairs to the bathroom in every restaurant. No eternally-broken escalators. No walking to work in 100 F heat/90% humidity, or back home in -20 F/three feet of snow. Whatever you want to do, wherever you want to go, you simply get into your car, drive somewhere, walk a few feet, and go inside. It’s the most amazing thing in the world, and as much as people complain about how bad being sedentary is for one’s health, I always feel about ten years younger when I’m there. I find myself running on the treadmill, or taking nature walks, or even doing calisthenics because daily life is not kicking my ass into the ground.

The life in downtown Toronto is just plain hard on me, and clearly, the stairs are not helping my heart. So I try to make it at least a little easier on myself by taking an elevator or escalator when convenient. I like to think of this as having compassion for my limitations, though I admit, I am often embarrassed to be standing by the elevator — even though I am registered as disabled at my school, and have to wear special orthotics in my shoes and blah blah blah. I am still embarrassed because I know what people must be thinking of me — the fat lady taking the elevator instead of the stairs.

In the back of my mind, I always have this episode of Mystery Diagnosis running whenever I’m confronted with too many stairs. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a woman with undiagnosed pulmonary hypertension who, in her chubby adolescence, became reluctant to climb stairs and run and things, because she felt instinctively that it would kill her. Naturally, they blamed this reluctance on her weight, shamed her for being lazy — and then she almost died from increasing her exercise.)

I feel this same reluctance when I have more than two flights of stairs to climb, especially if I’ve got textbooks on me. I feel trapped, pinned in a corner, and in grave danger. My heart simply doesn’t want to do it, and who knows — maybe the body has its own rationale behind making me fat enough to slow down my mobility when it comes to really strenuous pursuits, thereby keeping me safer.

So, when I see these little signs start to pop up around school or work, I inwardly groan. I can’t tell you how many times, aside from the episode mentioned above, I have heard people castigate others for not taking the stairs. I myself was harassed by a janitor as I waited for the elevator at my school (which has a large sign, mostly ignored by the other students, to please reserve its use for disabled students), and I had to calmly explain that it was hard on my injured foot to take the stairs.

I shouldn’t have had to.

With the coming of the signs comes the upping of the intensity of the judgments thrown at people who don’t follow them. Personally, I climb stairs (and a loft ladder) every single day in my apartment, but I must reserve the right to make my own judgment about when to conserve my efforts, when it is better for me, in fact, not to take the stairs. For the girl with pulmonary hypertension, stairs are potentially deadly. For one of my (very young, very fit) professors with knee trouble, taking the elevator just makes sense. But when it comes to public health campaigns of this stripe, there are no exceptions, no grey areas — there is only healthy or unhealthy, fat or fit, elevators or stairs, righteous or lazy. And I don’t like it.

One more reason I dislike this program? They measure the “health benefits” of taking the stairs solely in calories burned, not enjoyment had, or mastery gained, or strength attained. Lastly, there is, of course, no mention made of those who cannot or should not take the stairs — we simply do not exist. Maybe because, in some people’s minds, we’re already as good as dead.

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