Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors — about 21 out of every 24 hours each day — and evidence is mounting that the spaces in which we spend so much of our time have a huge impact on our well-being.
“The top five leading causes of death today are all related to the built environment,” says Whitney Austin Gray, PhD, senior vice president of the New York wellness-innovation firm Delos. She’s referring to the dramatic rise in cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and respiratory ailments that all stem, at least in part, from poor physical, social, and mental conditions.
The connection between built environments and health is becoming so well established that the Mayo Clinic recently partnered with Delos to create the Well Living Lab, a new research facility at Mayo where researchers are developing design templates that support human health and well-being.
“There’s a world of research out there, but architects aren’t trained in health and doctors aren’t trained in design,” Gray noted during Mayo’s recent Transform conference in Rochester, Minn. “This field is new.”
Delos and Mayo officials began envisioning the lab in 2013 to fill a gap in environmental-health research. While there have been several studies focused on specific environmental factors that affect health, such as light or air quality, few have looked at multiple elements — sound, temperature, light, and air quality — in concert. The lab was designed to observe these combined effects of our built environments, now and in the future, by studying human subjects in its flexible, modular research center, which can be reconfigured to mimic a wide range of professional and residential spaces. “It was built to accommodate technology we haven’t even thought of yet,” says Brent Bauer, MD, the Well Living Lab’s medical director.
Gray explains that, in addition to where we spend our time (in walkable neighborhoods or sprawling suburbs; in shopping malls or green parks), how our spaces are designed — the location and width of staircases, the integration of natural elements, and the presence of adjustable lighting, temperature, and acoustic elements — has a major impact on our bodies. Adjustable lighting, for example, helps create a dimmer, more peaceful environment before bed, which signals the light-sensitive pineal gland to prepare the body for sleep.
“We’re not meant to have the same stimuli from morning to night,” Gray insists. “The age of one-size-fits-all is done. We each have our own circumstances and preferences, and we can design spaces in a way that empowers people to choose what works for them.”
Based on what researchers have learned at the lab so far, it appears that there’s plenty we can do to make our indoor spaces more health supportive. Gray recommends throwing open the windows whenever possible to improve ventilation, citing research showing that indoor air pollutants can outnumber those outside by a factor of two to five. For that reason, she also strongly suggests avoiding furnishings or building materials that contain toxic chemicals such as volatile organic compounds. (Low VOC paints, for example, are becoming much more widely available.) Houseplants such as the golden pothos, for example, can remove toxins from the air (a simple ivy also cuts down on airborne toxins), and hanging artwork around your home can lead to decreased anxiety and improved mood.
For more tips on cleaning up your indoor environment, see “Detox Your Home” from our January/February 2014 issue.