Tube London Underground escalator commuters

One hundred years ago, people worked on the land or in labour intensive factories. They cycled to work and back, walked to see their families and used public transport if they wanted to travel further afield. Obesity, with its associated illness, diabetes, was rare and a problem only for the idle rich.

Nowadays we don't even walk to turn over the TV or answer the phone, and most of us sit out our lives at work and home in front of our new found technologies. And as a result we are getting fatter.

Yet now we are being told to stand, not walk, on the escalators at busy Tube stations to make us even less active than we are already. The theory is that this will aid congestion as less people walk on the left than choose to stand on the right, and queues would move faster if both sides were full. This may only sound like a small intrusion into our daily lives but the new move by Transport for London is a missed opportunity to tackle the obesity epidemic.

Mindless activity is good

We hear a lot about the evils of mindless eating as we grab snacks and consume calories without even noticing. And we are often advised to eat mindfully at a table and have 'a meal' as a social 'event' to be less distracted from our feelings of fullness. But for exercise it is the opposite. Ideally we would work out at a gym, play sport, go for a run and for some this is the case. But for many the boredom of exercise, the embarrassment of sweating in lycra, and the pain of breathlessness are too much and it's back to the sofa they go.

Walking up escalators to avoid the wait is mindless activity that can be included into a daily life and make people just that bit more active without even realising

The solution is therefore not mindful exercise as with food, but mindless activity. Getting the bus because car parking is expensive, using the stairs as it's faster than the lift, and walking up escalators to avoid the wait, are all useful forms of mindless activity that can be included into daily life without thought or effort and make people just that bit more active without even realising.

Health for everyone

My local park is packed every Saturday morning as more and more Guildford locals take up running, yet over the past 20 years the health gap between rich and poor has got wider. Whilst our park is full of healthier and richer people, the poor remain at home. So whilst those with money may well join a gym or run round the park, health is becoming the domain of the middle classes.

What is needed, therefore, are changes to the environment that affects everyone, not just the well off. Changes which require no time, effort or money, and generate health for everyone, even those without the desire to be healthy. And public transport could do just that by surreptitiously nudging everyone just to do a bit more.

People don't like the nanny state but it's just as much a nanny state to dictate 'stand' as it is to dictate 'move'.

The wrong norm

Just as in life, on the escalators there are those who walk and those who glide. If the solution is for all to be the same then there was a choice. Why should everyone glide when everyone could have been encouraged to walk? People don't like the nanny state but it's just as much a nanny state to dictate 'stand' as it is to dictate 'move'.

So why not use this chance to encourage people who are able to be a bit more active? We know that when people migrate to the US they gain weight, that couples gain weight together, and that our friends' weights are the best predictor of our own - not that of our genetically related parents. Norms are a huge source of change and it is such a shame not to use this on the Tube.

People should make healthy choices; eat well and do more. But they don't in a world that encourages them to eat more and do less. The world therefore needs to change, and small as it is, a short walk up an escalator twice a day could have been the start of a healthier life for everyone, without anyone even realising that was what they were doing.

Jane Ogden is a Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey where she carries out research into obesity management, eating behaviour and children's diets. She is author of over 170 academic papers and six books including 'The Good Parenting Food Guide' published by Wiley.