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Perceptual Modification of the Built Environment to Influence Behavior Associated with Physical Activity: Quasi-Experimental Field Studies of a Stair Banister Illusion

Abstract

Background

Re-engineering the built environment to influence behaviors associated with physical activity potentially provides an opportunity to promote healthier lifestyles at a population level. Here we present evidence from two quasi-experimental field studies in which we tested a novel, yet deceptively simple, intervention designed to alter perception of, and walking behavior associated with, stairs in an urban area.

Objectives

Our objectives were to examine whether adjusting a stair banister has an influence on perceptions of stair steepness or on walking behavior when approaching the stairs.

Methods

In study 1, we asked participants (n = 143) to visually estimate the steepness of a set of stairs viewed from the top, when the stair banister was adjusted so that it converged with or diverged from the stairs (± 1.91°) or remained neutral (± 0°). In study 2, the walking behavior of participants (n = 36) was filmed as they approached the stairs to descend, unaware of whether the banister converged, diverged, or was neutral.

Results

In study 1, participants estimated the stairs to be steeper if the banister diverged from, rather than converged with, the stairs. The effect was greater when participants were unaware of the adjustment. In study 2, walking speed was significantly slower when the banister diverged from, rather than converged with, the stairs.

Conclusions

These findings encourage us to speculate about the potential to economically re-engineer features of the built environment to provide opportunities for action (affordances) that invite physical activity behavior or even promote safer navigation of the environment.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For related arguments, see discussions of evolved navigation theory [16] and error management theory [17].

  2. 2.

    Order of banister adjustment was not counterbalanced, but there is no reason to believe that the day of the week upon which adjustments occurred (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) influenced sampling or responses. Participants who had completed an estimate on a previous day were not tested.

  3. 3.

    To avoid drawing the attention of participants to the banister–stairs relationship, participants had to complete the unaware condition first, so it was not possible to counterbalance aware/unaware conditions.

  4. 4.

    Both age and sex have been shown to influence perceptions of stairs/hills [12, 13, 15, 18].

  5. 5.

    During debriefing, no student indicated awareness that the banister had been adjusted.

  6. 6.

    Estimation data for one participant was unavailable, so the sample therefore included ten females and 22 males.

  7. 7.

    Participants indicated the size of the aperture created by a Ponzo illusion with the thumb and index finger (automated, low conscious) or with the thumb and ring finger (awkward, high conscious).

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Correspondence to Rich Masters.

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All procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

Conflict of interest

Rich Masters, Catherine Capio, Jamie Poolton, and Liis Uiga have no conflicts of interest associated with the manuscript.

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Masters, R., Capio, C., Poolton, J. et al. Perceptual Modification of the Built Environment to Influence Behavior Associated with Physical Activity: Quasi-Experimental Field Studies of a Stair Banister Illusion. Sports Med 48, 1505–1511 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0869-5

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