Friday, January 28, 2011

The Sign

This was the first incident in my life that made me think I wanted to get a blog, and be even in the smallest, least-noticeable way, an activist. Due to length and so I won't have to stare at this stupid thing every time I look at my blog, almost all of this is going under a cut.

At some point last semester at school, there went up a new sign. I'm a student at NYU, in New York City, the home of the fast-food calorie count (which I'll discuss another time, I'm sure). Evidently, this sign wasn't just going up at my school, but all around the city. It shows a stick-figure going up a flight of stairs with the text: Burn calories, not electricity! Take the Stairs! Walking up the stairs just 2 minutes a day helps prevent weight gain. It also helps the environment."

This sign is right in front of my front door. Every day, I walk outside and have to look at it.

Let's start with the most basic objections:

* Two minutes of stair-climbing is not a workout by anyone's measurement. It is a patently false, and absurd claim, that that much exercise would prevent weight gain even if calories-in-calories-out were true.

* The assumption that all people should be concerned about gaining weight, and the prevention thereof.

* This particular poster (they're all over the building) is on the tenth floor. It'd take a LOT more than two minutes to haul myself up nine flights of stairs, every day. 

Here's another, less-obvious annoyance: I've never once seen these posters on campus. I've only seen them in two buildings, both of which are a solid ten-to-fifteen minute walk away from the main campus. So, after having walked for a good half hour to go to class and come back over the course of the day, multiple times some days, I come home to see the poster urging me to take the stairs. Because it's those two minutes that's going to keep you from being fat, not the twenty-thirty minute walk!

And just for fun, since this is associated with the sustainability department - the poster is made of the kind of thick plastic that you'd find on a fire-escape map or something similarly permanent. And it's fastened firmly to the wall. There's GOT to be some kind of irony to the green society making up a ton of thick plastic posters.

What follows is the e-mail correspondence that I had with the sustainability department about the sign. As of now, nothing's happened. But I couldn't stay quiet.

Before I sent the email, I thought I could do just a light bit of activism. I took a post-it note, and wrote on it "Exercise is good for you REGARDLESS of effect on weight", and posted it over the 'weight gain' part of the sign.

A day later, someone wrote under my postit, "unless you're fat."

I know what it feels to live in a mindset where the only purpose of exercise is weight-loss. It means that when you don't lose weight, you stop exercising. It means that there's no point of exercise for thin people, except to prevent them from getting fat. It means there's no joy in movement, just obligation and shame and judgment. So I emailed. This is what happened.

Email to the suggestion box for the Sustainabilty department:

 I'd like to make a formal complaint regarding the new posters that have been going up in NYU buildings - the green-and-white ones that encourage people to "burn calories, not electricity" and claim that "taking the stairs for two minutes a day can prevent weight gain". I feel, as a fat, active woman, that it is not only false but harmful to encourage the idea that exercise should be for the purpose of weight management.

Exercise is healthy and should be encouraged - but it is healthy for people of all weights, and it is healthy regardless of its effect on weight. To see an NYU-approved poster (even though I understand that it is an NYC initiative) claim that, essentially, if I just moved more I wouldn't be fat, is disheartening and extremely aggravating. Most fat people are as active as most thin people. Exercise is healthy and necessary for people of all weights. Weight gain is not the end of the world, and weight management should not be the sole purpose of exercise.

I appreciate the initiative to conserve energy and encourage healthy exercise, but it can be done in a way that does not offer a false and misleading claim about the purpose and effect of light exercise. I would be most happy if the posters would be taken down, and in the future, perhaps replaced with sustainability posters that do not involve irrelevant claims about weight.

I want to stress that I'm in no way against the Take the Stairs campaign as a whole, and have not been letting my distaste for this particular sign deter me from trying to take the stairs more often than I'm used to*. What I do dislike is simply the emphasis on exercise as weight management. I would prefer to see a sign that told me that, for example, taking the stairs regularly would strengthen my heart, lungs and legs, which is true for all people. Taking the emphasis off of calories and weight management means that the sign addresses all people, regardless of whether they desire to decrease and maintain their weight.

I think that it might be more effective, though, to ignore the idea of exercise, which is not really relevant to sustainability, and focus on the concrete effects of taking the elevator. I would be much more motivated by a sign that told me, for example, that taking the stairs X number of floors saves as much energy as turning the thermostat down Y degrees; or conversely, that taking the elevator X floors uses as much energy as watching Y hours of television. Something like that would be a lot more immediate and relevant. There are plenty of ways to do this campaign that do not  feed into the idea that everyone must exercise as much as possible or risk being fat, which is so prevalent in other parts of life.

Thank you,


*This wasn't exactly a lie, but admittedly it was an exaggeration - where I normally took the stairs, I was more likely not to take the elevator even if I was extra-tired because I didn't want to be the fat girl standing there in front of the weight-loss sign taking the elevator anyway. Where I wouldn't take it, like my tenth-floor apartment, I just felt super-awkward. 

Dear Samantha,

Thanks for putting substantial thought and time into your suggestion regarding the Take the Stairs Campaign signage at NYU.  it's also great that you yourself have been taking the stairs, living an active lifestyle, and leading on these efforts in general!

We've discussed your feedback with staff in NYU Operations, NYU's Student Health Center, and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (which initially developed the citywide campaign). 

Concerning your criticism that the posters address everyone, not only targeting people who do not exercise, NYU Student Health Center staff noted:

"... it's been good to work with the city on this project.  Take the Stairs is a community campaign, which means it is good to have the whole community involved, even if many people are already engaged in active lifestyles... these campaigns have proven very effective.  Consider anti-smoking -- even though many people don't smoke, it's been helpful to advertise anti-smoking campaigns to everyone, changing cultural norms.  The same applies here, by reaching out to everyone in order to effect non-active people specifically.  As someone who's already active, you're to be commended, and are not our target audience in that case."

NYC DOHMH staff offered additional specific feedback, including information about the process behind the design of the posters and text that your objection referred to:
"the student is correct that different people have different reasons for exercising. However, we are unable to communicate all of these potential health benefits into a single, succinct message in a small sign. Therefore, we decided to communicate a message that would be relevant for everyone

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are now epidemic in New York City, and both problems are growing rapidly.  About six out of ten New Yorkers are overweight or obese, a dramatic change from the past.  In addition to physical inactivity, excess weight does place people at higher risk of chronic diseases.  While being active partially reduces that risk, weight management continues to be an important and legitimate, though not the sole, goal of physical activity [1].

The sign’s claim that 2 minutes of stair climbing can help prevent weight gain is based on calculations of expected caloric burn by physical activity and health experts [2]. Caloric burn, whether through stair climbing and other daily physical activities as well as dedicated exercise, all contribute to weight control as well as to overall health. Weight gain is, in part, tied to our underexpenditure of human energy. Since preventing excess weight gain and reducing the use of fuel and electricity-consuming devices are things that we would like everyone to be conscious of, we designed a sign to communicate these messages. The sign is not meant to single out individuals who are overweight, which is why the sign speaks about preventing weight gain for everyone.

Please feel free to contact us with any further questions, comments, or concerns.
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, January 2010.
2.  Zimring, C., et al., Influences of building design and site design on physical activity: research and intervention opportunities. Am J Prev Med, 2005. 28(2S2): p. 186-193."

The Office of Sustainability did pursue this campaign, in part, as an opportunity to visually and conceptually draw connections between issues of environmental sustainability and human health. 

Though many people don't think that health issues (including exercise) are relevant to sustainability, the linkages are quite strong under many circumstances -- here at NYU, this can be seen in the dual health/environmental benefits of our free Bike Share Program, in the increased emphasis on local and organic foods in dining halls, and in university efforts to improve indoor air and tap water quality, for example. 

If you'd like to follow up with us or with the NYC DOHMH, please let me know and I'll share your response or send you the appropriate contact information.

Though we do not plan to abandon the effort to draw these connections through the Take the Stairs campaign, please know that your reaction did prompt a great deal of thought and discussion among our staff and others within and beyond the university.  I hope you'll be pleased to get many people's gears turning about what is clearly a complex topic, and one which yields a range of different, valid opinions and reactions.


Jeremy Friedman

Sustainability Initiatives
New York University 

So, if I was offended, they just weren't talking to me. And exercise is so for weight loss, so there. I've kept back Jeremy's contact information, but I don't feel so miserable leaving the name up, to be honest. 

I wrote back one more time, 

Hi Again,

I appreciate your taking the time to think this over. I do think one significant point of mine has been overlooked, and that's that a significant number of people are not as enlightened and health-conscious as the NYU sustainability initiative and the NYC department of health. To a significant degree, people associate exercise with becoming thin, and being fat with not exercising, and that is the coorelation that I find harmful.

When I first saw these posters outside of my dorm, they annoyed me only slightly, and I decided to make my point simply. I took a post-it note and wrote on it "remember, exercise is healthy regardless of its effect on weight." It is important to me that people hear this message because of my own experience as an overweight, inactive teenager, who repeatedly gave up on exercise entirely when it did not result in weight loss, because I did not know about all of its other health and mental benefits.

(While exercise should be encouraged in all people for a healthy life, it is not because of the calories burned. This is an excellent article by Sandy Szwarc, BSN, RN, CCP, that explains how the idea of calorie counting for weight loss is oversimplified, and the history of scientific research on metabolism and body size: )

The next morning, underneath my post-it, someone had written, "unless you're fat".

That is the attitude that I think these posters unintentionally contribute to, although I understand completely that they have the best of intentions. But we live in a society in which people will deny that exercise has any health benefits if it does not also result in weight loss or weight control. This is also why the posters are harmful psychologically to people who are active but also overweight - they perpetuate the idea that they must not be active enough, they must be lazy or deluded, because weight loss is the only sign of being healthier. I reiterate that there are a thousand other ways to tie in human health and the benefits of exercise with the sustainability campaign - talk about how well stair-climbing strengthens the legs and the heart, talk about the fact that exercise releases endorphins that improve mood and reduce stress, or any other number of benefits that do not carry the heavy emotional baggage that weight does.

I appreciate that you've been willing to have this dialogue with me, and I would love for this email to go to the NYC department of health as well.

I never heard back. 

I don't know that I have any more commentary to give on the exchange. But I do love that argument that the city can't talk about EVERY reason for exercising in a slogan, so they picked weight loss. I think they assume that everyone knows exercise is healthy, and we need the reminders on the other bits. 

Except that for years, no one ever framed exercise to me as something healthy regardless of weight. It was what you did to lose weight, and if you didn't lose, or god forbid you gained, then exercise was clearly providing no benefit whatsoever. You can't just assume that people are already being taught something that isn't part of your anti-obesity ideology. If you want people to know that exercise is always healthy, then you can't bring up weight loss every time you mention it. 

I didn't have it in me to do anything beyond those emails. But the poster is still up. Despite emailing my RA and asking for it to at least be moved; the fact of the hard plastic fastened to the wall made it an unfeasible request. 

Out of frustration, a couple of particularly bad days out of the year so far, I've torn up two of the corners. I asked my RA to at least tell me what the fine would be for tearing it down all the way. It might be worth it. I can't stand that in my otherwise-fantastic senior year of college, I have to look at this every time I leave my room.  


  1. you are right on. Hang in there... They are drinking the cool-aid. Perhaps is enough of us keep up this sort of stuff, editorials etc our voices will be heard...

  2. I've just started an body activist blog myself - maybe one day we'll take over the interwebs :)

    Just wanting to say that I'm liking your blog and am following now. Keep on keeping on!

  3. I'll have to check yours out. Glad you're enjoying - you've just put me to double-digits in followers yaay