In the U.S., we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, leaving a total of 17 hours a week for outdoor activities. The built environment is our larger world, one that is affecting us in many unexpected ways.
The following three unintended workplace consequences affect you 24/7, but science-based wellness strategies can reverse the trend.
1. Lack of natural light disrupts your hormones.
The natural transition of sunlight from blue to red activates your sleep hormones. At sunrise, the energy you feel is from cortisol reacting to the blue light. At sunset, the relaxation you feel is from melatonin responding to the warm, red light.
In contrast to this natural transition throughout the day, most office lighting is wide-awake blue. It's great for productivity but not so much for relaxing by 6:00 p.m. To make matters worse, at home you surround yourself with more blue light from a cell phone, computer, and television until it's bedtime. Without a transition to red light, it's hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Problems occur when you get fewer than five or six hours of sleep. When you're sleep deprived, your brain tells your hunger hormones (ghrelin and leptin) you're still active and need some leftover pizza. The two hormones work together--one making you hungry, especially for carbohydrates, and the other keeping you from feeling full. It's a perfect storm of excess calories heading straight for the waistline.
The workplace can help you sleep. Circadian lighting, which mimics the color transition of sunlight throughout the day, is the high-end solution. The less-costly workplace option is to use sunlight. Most offices I design allow everyone to have a view. Locate your people within 25 feet of a window to maximize exposure to natural light (management can thank me later when their staff is sleeping better. It also helps to take 10-minute outdoor breaks and conduct walking meetings outside.
At-home tip: Install a circadian app on your cell phone and computer, and turn off the television an hour before bed.
2. Too much stress puts your cortisol production into overdrive.
The hormone cortisol, which regulates wakefulness, also produces your fight-or-flight response to stress. While we all need cortisol for energy, too much is unhealthy.
Highly elevated cortisol makes you fat. When you're under stress, cortisol taps into your glucose stores for energy to fight back. We tend to hold our stress inside, never expending the converted energy, so it's stored as fat - mostly in the abdomen. To top it off, stress affects food preferences, pushing you toward comfort foods rich in fat and sugar.
The workplace can reduce stress. The best way to release stored energy is to incorporate exercise throughout your workday. If you can't use a gym, take the stairs. Design strategies, such as stairwell lighting, music, and artwork, are successful in promoting stair use. Provide employees with sit-stand desks, conduct meetings around a stand-up conference table, start a Fitbit competition, and look into biophilic design, which incorporates nature. Numerous studies show that even limited views of nature significantly reduce cortisol levels.
3. Hormone-induced hunger leads to high-calorie snacks.
An imbalance in hormones can lead to strong cravings for high-fat and sugary snacks, but there are ways to take back control. After a weekend of activities in the sun, it's unlikely that you'll return home with the same cravings for unhealthy foods. That's an example of your hormones reacting to a reset of your circadian rhythm. Build on the reset--get more sun, exercise, and make better food choices.
The workplace can improve your diet. A well-designed break room encourages employees to relax, collaborate, and connect with one another while eating, which actually helps to prevent impulse eating. Augment your hormone-regulating strategies with a selection of nutritious, delicious fresh produce and snacks. At Hendy, we provide an assortment of cut-up, great-tasting fruit.
Weight gain from sleeplessness, stress, and hormone-induced snacking is one of the many unexpected outcomes of spending too many hours indoors, but you can halt the cycle. Integrating wellness strategies directly into the workplace can significantly improve the health, well-being, and productivity of all its occupants.