"Every step you take, every move you make." Sting wasn't singing about getting fit, but his ballad could become an anthem for the active design movement.

Along with ways to make buildings more sustainable and healthier, researchers, professionals and governments are looking at how building design can promote physical activity as well. Growing concern about the health risks and high cost of obesity, overly sedentary lifestyles and poor ergonomics has pushed active design to the forefront of emerging trends in the building industry.

Designing buildings and interior spaces to encourage physical activity is not a new idea. Anyone recall Woody Allen demonstrating the Execu-ciser in "Bananas" (see below)?

Interest in active design got a big boost in 2010, however, when the American Institute of Architects teamed with the City of New York to establish the Center for Active Design and develop a set of Active Design Guidelines. The guidelines include "building design strategies for promoting active living where we work and live and play, through the placement and design of stairs, elevators, and indoor and outdoor spaces," and a "discussion of synergies between active design with sustainable and universal design initiatives."

Since the launch of the guidelines, initiatives have taken root in other U.S. municipalities as well as in the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere.

In the past several months, research on active design has made headlines in both popular and industry media. A recent article for Fast Company's FastCoDesign website reported on a research study conducted at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville that compared the use of stairs in three buildings on campus — one with a central bank of four centrally-located elevators and a stairwell behind a fire door, and two with centrally located staircases and out-of-the-way elevators.

The researchers found that "the percentage of people who ascended the stairs was 8.1 percent in the elevator-centric building, compared with 72.8 percent and 81.1 percent in the two stair-centric buildings." Thus raising the question posed in the Fast Company article, "Can our buildings help keep us from getting fat?"

Office furniture giant Steelcase in a recent issue of its corporate 360 Magazine featured a case study of a workplace redesign at Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions and the College of Nursing and Health Innovation that placed a high priority on staff wellness, including promoting a more active way of working.

Designers and researchers worked together to develop a solution that combined design of the physical workspace, furnishings (including sit/stand desks, height-adjustable seating and Steelcase's Details Walkstation, an integrated treadmill and worksurface) and an email support system to create a holistic environment that would encourage and support more healthy behaviors. Although researchers are still collecting and analyzing the data, "the deans are already seeing signs of change and progress," the article states.

At the AIA's national convention in June, McGraw-Hill Construction released its report, "The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings: The Market Drivers and Impact of Building Design on Occupant Health, Well-Being and Productivity," which garnered considerable media interest. Researchers surveyed medical practitioners, human resource executives and homeowners, as well as builders and architects, to gauge their level of awareness of health issues related to the built environment.

Among its findings, the study shows a fairly high level of awareness among homeowners, HR executives and industry professionals of the links between buildings and people's health, but a fairly low level of awareness among physicians.

The report concludes: "Physician awareness and recommendation of more fundamental healthy building design and construction practices that connect with the health risks of most concern to public health lack of exercise, chronic stress, poor diet and obesity could help create the market demand needed to drive investment, but only if physicians expand their engagement with these issues."

According to the Center for Active Design, 74 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, and that figure could rise to 86 percent by 2030 if the trend is not reversed. Phit America, a national corporately-funded campaign to combat obesity, calculated that the annual cost of employee absenteeism due to obesity is $6.4 billion. At the same time, Americans are spending more than $60 billion a year on trying to lose weight and keep fit.

With numbers like those, it's time for builders and architects to advocate more strongly for incorporating active design solutions into their projects. Building design alone won't solve the problem, but the construction and promotion of healthy buildings can affect changes that will ripple through society and have an impact on people's lifestyles.