Some people may be surprised to see physical environment as one of the self-care areas on the Wheel of Health. However, the spaces that we live, work and play in can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing – either positively or negatively. There are three major areas that fall under this category: your community, your workplace and your home. I will explore each of these briefly and invite you to consider those aspects of your environment that you can most easily influence to support and nurture your health.
Think about the town or city where you live. There are a number of factors that can affect your health and wellness. For example, local climate may play a role. If you live in the northern US, you may not get enough sunlight during the winter months to make adequate amounts of Vitamin D. You could also be more prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. It may also be more difficult to stay active when winter weather hampers your exercise plans.
If you live in a warmer climate, you need to consider taking precautions against the sun and heat. For example, you may want to use sunscreen when you are outdoors, stay well-hydrated and limit outdoor activity when air quality is poor. The local climate can also impact health issues such as seasonal allergies. There may be certain types of plants or trees that grow in your geographic area that irritate your sinuses. Minor cases are often treatable with medications, but more severe allergies may prompt you to consider moving to a different geographic location to avoid the trigger(s).
There are often different health issues in urban vs. rural areas. City residents may face higher levels of stress due to concerns about crime, violence or traffic congestion. On the other hand, cultural norms in more rural areas may contribute to higher rates of tobacco use or less nutritious diets. Rural residents may also have to travel further to obtain routine or emergency medical care. There are advantages and disadvantages to both settings, so you will want to carefully consider which environment will foster your health and wellbeing.
If you work in an office, it is likely you spend a good portion of your day in that environment. Although we may have limited control over the buildings we work in, our personal work spaces can be created to nurture our wellbeing. Creating a healthy environment in your office space can have a positive impact on your physical body as well as your emotional satisfaction with going to work every day. There are a few factors to consider such as:
Ergonomics: You want to be sure that your office furniture and equipment supports body mechanics and does not contribute to potential health issues, such as musculoskeletal pain or eye strain. The Human Resources department at your workplace should be able to assess your workstation and assist you with making it as safe and comfortable as possible. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) also has some helpful resources here.
Surroundings: There are several strategies you can use to make your work station or office as pleasant as possible. For example, consider adding green plants to brighten up your space and improve air quality. Play soothing music or purchase a small water fountain to listen to the sound of running water. Decorate your workstation with photos and keepsakes that inspire you. Add a desk lamp to avoid or reduce the need for fluorescent lighting. And finally, do your best to avoid clutter by implementing a file system and/or other organizational tools. Allot some time at the end of each day to tidy up your desk and office space.
Movement/Activity: By now, many of you have probably heard the new mantra that “sitting is the new smoking,” as studies have demonstrated that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality. If you have a job that requires you to sit at a computer most of the day, find ways to build movement into your day. We can all benefit from taking breaks during the work day – whether to stretch, take a short walk or just take a few deep breaths away from our work station. Taking a break allows us to come back to the job at hand with renewed energy and sense of purpose.
No matter what type of dwelling you live in, your home can be a haven for your health, offering support to your body, mind and soul. However, it can also contribute to health problems if we are not careful. There are a few factors to consider when assessing the safety and comfort of your home, including:
Air quality: It is important to have a home that is well ventilated (i.e., one that allows for the exchange of indoor and outdoor air). Without proper ventilation, an insulated and airtight house may seal in harmful pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, and moisture that can damage a house. Click here for a helpful guide to home ventilation. There are several reasons to remove your shoes once inside your home, primarily because they can track in dirt, pesticides and other pollutants. When buying new carpet, furniture or paint, consider products with low chemical emissions to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.
Water quality: The water available for drinking in your home can contain a variety of contaminants that may adversely impact your health. You can learn about the quality of your community’s tap water by visiting this website and entering your zip code. If you have a private well, contact your city or county government to have it tested regularly for any potential contaminants. There are certified filters that can remove harmful contaminants from your water.
Aesthetics: Although we often can’t control the environment outside our homes, we have more control over the inside of them. Explore what changes you could make so that each room is a more nurturing, supportive place for you. Feel free to experiment with color, material, scent, music or the overall layout of rooms so that these spaces satisfy your senses. Consider assessing how the color impacts your mood, or whether there is adequate lighting and pleasant smells.
There is one other topic related to aesthetics I would like to address and that is clutter. Clearing clutter is first and foremost a safety issue, as it can reduce the risk of falls and help eliminate germs. However, clutter can also have a subtler impact on us mentally and emotionally. Having too much “stuff” in your living space can drag you down, physically and mentally. Common challenges include excess paper, clothing, and “collections” of favorite objects. Here are some helpful strategies for reducing clutter:
- Follow the “one in, one out” rule – every time a new item comes into your home, a similar item must leave. For example, if you buy a new jacket, donate or sell a used one that you no longer need. Some people even take this a step further and remove two items for every new one that comes in.
- Create a place for everything. Once all items have a home, it will be easier to put things away regularly.
- Schedule time to regularly go through things and purge as needed. This can be daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – whatever timeframe works best for you.
- If you have trouble dealing with clutter on your own, consider hiring a professional organizer. You can click here to find one in your area.
As you can see, there are many ways that your physical environment plays a role in your health and wellbeing! I encourage you to take some time to assess how the places you live, work and play are impacting your health.