Consider the many ways a healthy environment impacts our decision-making.  What we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel impacts our actions—and emerging research validates this.

This is the fifth post in a five part series on the topic of how to stay healthy and keep good habits going all year.

Movement

Building location and access to public amenities can impact how much we move. For example, research shows that proximity to parks and other recreational facilities is consistently associated with higher levels of physical activity and healthier weight status among youth and adults. The same goes for proximity to public transit—there is a link between access to public transportation and physical activity since transit use typically involves walking to a bus or subway stop. In one study, train commuters walked an average of 30 percent more steps per day and were four times more likely to walk 10,000 steps per day than car commuters.

Several studies show that simply letting people know the health benefits of taking the stairs and showing their location (like putting a sign in the elevator lobby or using stair banners, like these) increases stair usage by 54 percent. Taking this a bit further,  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a “StairWELL to Better Health” campaign in its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. They use music, art, an upgraded appearance, and motivational signage to nudge employees to use the stairs more often. (Check out their downloadable signs, and see “before” and “after” images of their stairwells – example below.)

healthy environment

CDC’s Rhodes Building stairwell, before and after

Healthy eating habits

You may not have heard the term “choice architecture,” but you experience its impact every time you stand next to the candy display at a checkout counter. Choice architecture refers to the different ways in which choices can be presented to consumers and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision making.

For example, the number of choices presented, the manner in which attributes are described, and the presence of a “default” can all influence consumer choice. Many companies are using this strategy by reducing the number of unhealthy foods available in the workplace or by making them harder to find.  ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating, suggests a number of ways our eating behavior is significantly impacted by the way food is presented to us. For example, in some of his studies, people were 44 percent less likely to snack in kitchens that were tidy versus kitchen environments that were messy.

Keeping the kitchen clean is more than just a sanitation issue—it can affect how much we eat. In another study, Wansink found that people tend to eat less on plates that are 9-10 inches in diameter. People piled up food on larger plates, but felt “deprived” and went for a second helping when eating on smaller plates (around 6 inches in diameter). His other studies show that people are likely to serve themselves 20 percent less food on plates with “contrasting colors” to the food they are eating, e.g., white pasta on a red or blue plate. White breads and pastas on white plates? That is a recipe for “carb-loading”!

Stress and well-being

healthy environment

BASF corporate office in Mexico City by SPACE

Want a healthy environment that reduces stress?  Bring in the plants!  We have a strong desire to be in and among nature. It’s only natural: for most of human history we spent all our time outdoors. This preference, often referred to biophilia, was introduced and popularized by E.O. Wilson, known as the “father of biodiversity.” Wilson suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.

In Biophilic Design: Theory, Science and Practice, authors Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador describe the importance of nature for human productivity:

Interestingly, biophilia-based design can be manifested in many ways. The most obvious way is to incorporate real plants, water, and natural views into buildings. Another way is to create “natural analogues” or use materials and patterns that evoke nature, such as artwork, ornamentation, biomorphic forms, or the use of natural materials. A third way to use biophilia is through configuration of space, by organizing interior environments or man-made outdoor landscapes, using similar to natural environments elements.

Want more ideas for how to stay healthy?

How to Motivate Yourself to Stay Healthy

Use Peer Pressure to Stay Healthy

Find an Accountability Partner to Stay Healthy

Best Health Apps to Motivate You

Photograph of Leigh StringerLeigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher.  She works for EYP, an architecture, engineering and building technology firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.