By Deepak Chopra™ MD, and Paul Scialla
The lockdown that occurred in the face of COVID-19 brings to light something almost everyone overlooked in the past. We are now an indoor species. This was already true before the lockdown. Outdoor work has declined radically since the Industrial Revolution. In the West today we spend on average over 90% of our lives inside, whether in our homes, offices, schools, hotels or restaurants.
This development is contrary to most of human history, which was spent primarily outdoors. Unknown to most people, the boxes we now occupy have a profound impact on our health and well-being. Our physical and social environments conceivably have as much impact on our health as factors more widely recognized, such as genetics, lifestyle, and behavior patterns. Indoors the elements of air and water quality, lighting, temperature, and acoustics can all have a direct impact on such diverse things as respiration, sleep, immunity, and cardiovascular health.
While the notion of “wellness real estate” first emerged several years ago, COVID-19 has brought about a sudden awareness: What surrounds us matters. What we touch matters. It makes a difference how we gather indoors and share the same air. In a word, real estate is, and will remain, the largest “carrier” of a pathogen load such as the coronavirus or the next pathogen we face in the future.
The risks are primarily threefold: airborne (what we breathe), surface borne (what we touch), and behavioral borne (how we gather and how we care for our immune systems).
As society cautiously returns to normal, we should reconsider all three of these risks. Programs such as the WELL Health-Safety Rating from the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which is evidence-based and third-party verified, focuses on strategies to protect people in a post-COVID environment. Drawing on insights from nearly 600 public health experts, virologists, government officials, academics, business leaders, architects, designers, building scientists, and real estate professionals, the rating provides a reliable means to measure how effectively all building types can be maintained for the health of the people inside them. The rating program is relevant for all building types – restaurants, schools, retail stores, offices, theatres – and is a review of policies and protocols that building operators put in place regarding cleaning and maintenance requirements, emergency response readiness, social distancing, and other factors that explicitly address the risk of pathogen transmission. The WELL Building Standard expands further into design interventions such as improved air filtration and ventilation to reduce the concentration of airborne viruses, pollutants and allergens, and circadian lighting to help balance 24-hour sleep-wake cycles.
Strategies to consider based on this research include:
- Enhanced cleaning products and protocols: Maintaining thorough cleaning protocols on high-touch surfaces can help reduce the chance of infection.
- Improved air quality: Opening windows to increase ventilation within a space or implementing air filtration technologies can help reduce the concentration of airborne viruses, along with other pollutants and allergens.
- Elements of comfort: Working from home may lead to decreased physical activity and increased strain on our bodies. Active furnishings can help discourage prolonged sitting and sedentary behaviors.
- Mental health support: Connecting with nature through plants, light and access to views can help improve mood and mitigate stress. This is particularly important since stress is known to weaken the immune system.
- Circadian lighting design: Poor sleep quality can play a role in weakening the body’s immune function. Lighting that mimics the patterns of the sun can help promote a restful night’s sleep.
These strategies are an important step in responding to today’s public health challenge, but also to building a healthier future overall. One of the positive outcomes that has come to light over the past few months is a collective understanding that every facet of the indoor environment plays a role in our health outcomes. This is the next phase in promoting a holistic approach to well-being.