Over the past 200,000 years, we homo sapiens have spent the vast majority of our time outside as hunters and gatherers, lived in temporary structures, and would walk to wherever the best food and resources happened to be. It wasn’t until relatively recently—over the past 10,000 years—that agriculture was born. This has enabled us to live in more permanent homes and spend a bit less time hustling outdoors.
We now spend approximately 90 percent of our time indoors, almost 70% of which is at home. Have we adapted to our modern environments, or maladapted?
Although our modern lifestyles undoubtedly have enormous benefits, we also should be aware that the large amount of time we spend indoors may have negative consequences on our health and well-being. Here are three potential issues with spending this much time indoors and what you can do to help prevent them.
Risk #1: Poor indoor air quality can trigger asthma symptoms
It is estimated that over 300 million people suffer from asthma globally, and the rate of the condition is expected to rise significantly. By 2025, 100 million new cases are predicted. Doctors typically recommend that those who suffer from asthma limit their exposure to common triggers like household dust, mold, and tobacco smoke.
Because we typically spend so much time indoors, it’s important that we breathe the cleanest air possible. However, air quality inside our homes can be 2 to 5 times worse than outside, and unlike outdoor air quality is not regulated by laws.
What you can do:
- Use an air quality monitor that alerts you when volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter and carbon dioxide are at higher than recommended levels.
- Use an air filtration system and keep your space well ventilated (only if outdoor air quality is good), especially when you’re cooking, burning candles, etc.
- Commit to a cleaning schedule that will reduce household dust and mold accumulation, including filter maintenance.
- Buy low or no-VOC products.
Risk #2: Artificial lighting can impair sleep quantity and quality
Light is arguably one of the primary regulators of our sleep-wake cycle. Our bodies respond to bright, blue-rich light with activity and alertness, while dim, warm light sends cues to our body to prepare for rest. Many of the devices we use regularly at night such as televisions, mobile phones, computer screens and indoor lighting emit blue light and disrupt the 24-hour body cycle.
What you can do:
- Install circadian lighting throughout your home. This will adjust the color temperature of light throughout the day so it is more aligned with natural lighting rhythms.
- Use black-out shades when going to bed at night to reduce unnecessary exposure to light.
- Limit artificial blue light from devices at night.
Risk #3: Disconnection with nature can negatively impact mental and physical health
Spending 90 percent of our time indoors means that we’re not spending a lot of time out in nature. Throughout the majority of human history, we’ve had relatively constant interaction with natural surroundings and developed an innate affection for living things (often referred to as biophilia). Access to nature has also been shown to increase healing.
Several scientific studies show there are significant health and well-being benefits to exposing ourselves to natural views, sounds and smells. For instance, one study found that patients recovered from surgery faster when their hospital room window faced a natural setting compared to a view of a brick wall.
What you can do:
- Incorporate natural elements inside your home (e.g., wood floors/cabinets, plants, natural lighting).
- Choose a home with views of nature if possible. This can range from a tree on the street to a full ocean view.
Naturally – spend more time outdoors!
About the Authors
At Delos, Dr. Whitney Austin Gray is responsible for the oversight of health research and the development of innovative design strategies and products that seek to improve human health and wellness through building design. Prior to joining Delos, Dr. Gray served as the Health Research and Innovation Director for Cannon Design, a global healthcare design firm. Dr. Gray’s efforts have been widely published, and she is an invited presenter at national and international conferences—often speaking on topics related to health centered design in healthcare environments. Dr. Gray co-founded the NIH Health in Buildings Roundtable, and supports health and design research through the AIA, ULI, and EDRA. She received her PhD from The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and her BA in Public Health Studies from The Johns Hopkins University, and was the first public health professional to become LEED AP.
Dr. Stephanie Timm is a researcher with a core interest in how design of our built environment can improve people’s lives. Her primary focus is creating and translating industry and academic research into action. Before joining Delos Dr. Timm studied and worked in five different countries. Dr. Timm has taught multiple university courses, presented at international conferences, and published her research in peer-reviewed journals. She received her Ph.D. in Regional Planning and M.S. in Architectural Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her M.S. in Engineering and Masters in City and Regional Planning from California Polytechnic State University. In 2014, she was selected as U.S. Fulbright Fellow to conduct research in Singapore. She also holds both WELL AP and LEED AP BD+C credentials.