Stairway to Fitness
“I like this particular stairwell,” said Robert Kasberg, as he proudly showed a visitor the landing at the fourteenth floor at the School of Dental Medicine, and it’s easy to see why. All the stairs are brightly painted in contrasting white and orange, as they are from the eighth to top fifteenth floors, awash with natural light.
Here, building and sky converge. Massive windows frame a rarely seen wide-angle view of Boston. One can see not only Chinatown but corners of the Theater District, Downtown Crossing—that’s the tip of Old South Church’s historic spire beyond the Paramount—and, in the distance, there’s Logan’s air traffic control tower, with just a sliver of the Atlantic visible beyond.
“Once you get past the eighth floor, it opens up—it’s like being in the mountains and getting above the tree line,” said Kasberg, associate dean of admissions and student affairs. “All of a sudden, you get a vista. At night—and anytime the weather changes—it’s always amazing.”
For Kasberg and others at the School of Dental Medicine, that sweeping view is one of the many perks that come with a daily devotion to taking the stairs instead of the elevator—often climbing all fifteen floors at once, some 360 stairs. These “stair masters” are found throughout 1 Kneeland Street, a landmark of the Boston health sciences campus.
Students, staff, and faculty who opt for stairs over the elevator see them as part of their daily workout, building cardiovascular and muscle strength, uncluttering thoughts, and managing stress. Their experiences are buttressed by research that demonstrates how even short intervals of stair climbing, folded into the workday, throughout the day, can improve cardiovascular health.
Cheryl Coke, a dental assistant in periodontology, and her colleague Therese Kohlman, periodontology’s department administrator, factor the stairs into their lunch break. By 12:25 they are usually riding the elevator down to the first floor and then start climbing the stairs back to the twelfth floor, but “sometimes I keep going to fifteen,” said Coke. “When Therese first started, she was going to five and six, and one day I said, you can go to the next floor up and the next floor after that—so she started, she made it, and she has never stopped. She knows once I get going, I don’t want to stop!”
Coke admits it’s easy to get winded—the two have to stop occasionally to catch their breath. But each step brings her closer to her walking goal. She has always walked to and from South Station for her commute, and when the Wellness Center sponsored the Move More fitness challenge, she upped her daily 10,000 steps to 20,000. She went on to win a Fitbit.
Slimming down, she said, was her first incentive for getting serious about the stairs—and she shed some twenty pounds. She realizes, though, that the stairs are also great for her overall health. “The stairs, they really get my heart pumping,” she said. “I feel like I’m really working out.”
A Commitment to Fitness
Kasberg’s penchant for stairs is also an extension of a commitment to fitness. After early morning exercises at home, followed by his health-conscious commute —a half-hour walk to the commuter rail (“rain, snow, or shine”) and another half-hour walk from Back Bay to the dental school—he arrives at the school by 6:30 a.m. and climbs up and down the full fifteen flights not once but twice—and two steps at a time—all before his work day even begins.
“It’s like our own gymnasium here,” said Kasberg, sixty-five, who aims to climb all fifteen floors four times every day. “You just do it because it’s habitual,” he said. “It’s like brushing teeth—you work it into the everyday.”
Kasberg, who recommends the stairs “to as many people as I can,” appreciates the cardiovascular and strength-building benefits. With stairs, “you’re climbing,” he stressed. “You’re really giving yourself a cardio workout; you’re building up your respiratory system.” It’s also weight bearing in a way that is not possible with jogging or walking on a flat surface, “so you’re building up your muscles and bones to a much greater degree.”
And for the elevator holdouts, he reaches for undeniable selling points. “It’s low tech, it’s free, and it’s easy,” he said. “I don’t understand why anybody who enjoys physical fitness doesn’t use the stairs.”
So deep are his convictions that last year he decided, along with another stair climbing enthusiast, David Leader, D85, MPH13, associate professor of comprehensive care, to participate in the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb fundraiser at One Boston Place—all forty-one floors (and 789 stairs). Kasberg started out taking his usual two steps at a time, and eventually had to dial that back, but he still came in first in his age category, completing the course in nine and a quarter minutes.
Leader, a runner and outdoor fitness enthusiast, also proved his stair stamina at the Fight for Air Climb 2018. “I was already in training for the Tough Ruck—a 26.2-mile fundraiser for veterans the Saturday before the Boston Marathon—and I thought it would be a great way to get in shape,” he said. In addition to doing stair machines at the gym, he was climbing fifteen flights—three times in succession.
“I’ve had back trouble on and off, and the kind of preparation that you have to do to climb stairs builds your core so much that I feel much healthier, much stronger,” he said. “It’s been really tremendous. I did my first marathon in October, and I wouldn’t have thought to do that if I hadn’t first done this.”
Both Kasberg and Leader are beginning to train for this year’s Fight for Air Climb event on March 30, where they will joined by students. Evanthia Vranas, D20, class rep for the school's Health and Wellness Committee, is recruiting volunteers for the team she calls TUSDM Climbers. This will be the first year that students show their stuff at Fight for Air, and if anyone can motivate students, it is likely to be Vranas. For the past three years she rallied students to participate in the American Cancer Society’s outdoor yoga event, Vinyasa with a View, and raised several hundred dollars.
The Stress Reliever
The stairs are faster than the elevator, too. “That’s what I love about it,” she said. “I can fit exercise into my day without really having to make a special trip to gym.”
Students could also take a page from Mark Gonthier, executive associate dean of the dental school, for whom the stairs are “second nature.” That’s because they are important to his overall fitness goals. Every morning he bounds up fifteen flights to his office with the added weight of his backpack. He rarely if ever takes the elevator throughout the day. His goal is fifty flights a day.
“It is often hard to get in as much cardiovascular activity as I did when I was younger, so I appreciate how they help me stay fit,” he said. “I know they increase my overall aerobic fitness. It’s hard to prove, but I believe my colds are shorter because my lungs feel more ‘open’ from all the stairclimbing.”
The payoff is not only physical strength. He makes a clear connection between the stairs and attitude. “I know that when I take the stairs, the endorphins get pumping and that helps my mood,” he said. “I’m getting my oxygen. I’m feeling energized and enthusiastic.”
That may, in the end, be the one point that unites all stair advocates, whatever their motivation or endurance. Take the stairs, they say, and you might just find that elusive mental clarity. That’s typically true for Kasberg; he can reflect indirectly on a problem, rather than spinning the proverbial wheels at his desk, he said.
Cheryl Coke has felt it herself, too. “Before I did the stairs I was sluggish and a little bit moody, but when your heart gets racing, somehow it lifts you up—I am more energized.” She feels that shift particularly whenever she rounds the corner to the eighth floor and sees that upbeat orange and the vast windows framing Boston.
“As soon as I get there, I think, “OK, here’s where the orange starts—and orange is my favorite color,” she said with a laugh. “I know we only have four more flights to go and I am motivated to just keep on going.”
Laura Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.