What primarily “indoor living” is doing to our health, wellbeing and productivity.
Every morning, the routine looks the same: Wake up, brew coffee in a dimly lit house, drive the pre-dawn commute to the office, and spend the day tapping away in a stuffy cubicle while intermittently checking some kind of smart device for updates from the “outside world.”
While modern amenities have undoubtedly made life easier on many accounts, there’s a key element of the above scenario that’s a major departure from human behavior throughout any other point in history: Over the course of the past 200 years, workers have migrated from workplaces like fields and farms to factories and offices. Instead of basking in natural sunlight, many people today are spending the majority of their time basking in the glow of some kind of screen, which puts us out of sync with natural circadian rhythms. In addition, modern society prioritizes high-pressure careers, and an always-on attitude when it comes to work and social life — which disturbs natural biological rhythms even further.
When examined collectively, all of these factors may be taking a toll on our health and happiness. Welcome to the era of the “Indoor Generation.” A recent report backed by data from international research firm YouGov highlights how much time people are really spending inside — and the findings are illuminating in more ways than one.
Perception versus reality
People don’t fully comprehend the sheer amount of time they’re spending inside. It’s easy to see how this fact slips our attention: It doesn’t register that it’s been 46 hours since you stepped foot out of your house when you’re eyeballs-deep in a weekend binge-watching session or swamped with high-pressure deadlines during the week.
The aforementioned study, which surveyed around 16,000 people across 14 countries in North America and Europe, found a pronounced disparity between how much time people think they’re spending inside versus the reality of how many hours a day are actually spent indoors. While most survey respondents reported that they think they spend around two-thirds of their time inside, the number is actually quite a bit higher. Previous research has found that around 90 percent of people spend close to 22 hours inside every day. One in six respondents to the YouGov survey, too, admitted that they practically never go outside, spending up to 24 hours a day indoors.
In fact, over the course of an average day, an employee working in a typical modern desk job — like the one detailed at the start of this article — may spend as little as 15 minutes outdoors during the daytime. That’s only about half the time it takes to correctly calibrate your circadian clock.
Health and happiness in the “indoor era”
“Wellness” is a word that’s thrown around a lot today: You’ve probably heard it everywhere from the yoga studio to the company all-hands meeting. With wellness being such a focus for so many, it’s surprising that people aren’t paying more attention to the basics — such as the primal need for sunlight and fresh air. In a tech-driven society, it seems that many people’s priorities are less about the pursuit of happiness and more about the pursuit of a really great food-delivery app.
This detachment from the natural world — and natural sunlight, specifically — can have negative impacts, and can even have deleterious effects as serious as respiratory problems or Seasonal Affective Disorder. The YouGov report notes that around 15 percent of the world’s population is affected by different levels of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) or winter depression, which may be a direct result of lack of daylight. A full 39 percent of survey respondents said that daylight significantly impacts their mood.
Spending so much time inside isn’t great for physical health, either — particularly in home and workplaces with poor indoor air quality. As the YouGov report points out, an average adult breathes in almost 4,000 gallons of air every day — and indoor air can be up to five times as polluted as outdoor air (a fact that almost 80 percent of survey respondents didn’t know).
“We know instinctively that spending so many hours in stuffy places isn’t good for us,” said Peter Foldbjerg, head of daylight energy and indoor climate at VELUX. “The health benefits of improving our indoor environment are scientifically proven; however, we still have a long journey to go in terms of making people understand that these changes are not just a ‘nice to have.’ Without action, we can put our health at risk.”
There are a number of factors that affect air quality, such as dampness or mold, burning candles, how you clean your home (and with what), and building and furniture materials. When these factors combine to create suboptimal air quality, it can put our bodies through the wringer: It increases instances of eye, nose and throat irritation as well as levels of fatigue. If you’ve noticed a persistent, dull headache after spending a number of hours inside, that, too, may be related to poor air quality. The YouGov study also notes that living in damp and moldy homes increases risk of asthma by as much as 40 percent.
Disruption to natural cycles
There’s another victim of indoor living: Our sleep cycles, which evolved to respond to natural daylight — something we’re just not getting enough of. Indoor lighting levels are around 300-500 lux, which is enough light for going about your daily routine, but not enough to regulate biological rhythms requiring a minimum of 1,000 lux. This is another element of wellbeing that people are largely unaware of: Only about half (53 percent) of the YouGov survey respondents knew that daylight has a significant impact on sleep.
It’s not just technology that’s to blame for the disruption of our natural cycles. We now live in a “social clock society,” in which people are expected to be available at a moment’s notice for both work and social duties. “We are a 24/7 society, and this has disconnected us from the natural rhythms of nature,” said Foldbjerg. “It impacts our sleep quality and general health.”
Steven Lockley, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, reiterates that exposure to light-dark cycles is an “absolutely crucial” part of human biology. “That’s due to the role of light in resetting our circadian clock each and every day,” he said. “It resets our clocks to be in tune with environmental time, and light is the primary time-cue.”
In addition, Lockley explains that light, as an “acute stimulant that directly alerts the brain,” can affect energy levels as well as alertness and productivity.
“If you’re exposed to brighter and bluer light in the daytime, then you get a better stimulant effect,” he said. “You’ll be more alert and have better cognitive function … If we’re thinking of offices, schools, hospitals, etc., it’s the alerting effects in the daytime that we want to take advantage of.”
A potential solution to the disruptiveness of indoor living is a form of architectural design called “Circadian House,” which is a way to realize healthy homes that support occupants’ biological needs. These homes are specially designed to include better energy-performing windows and skylights, energy-efficient HVAC systems and thermal insulation — as well as to provide optimal levels of light to replicate the light-dark cycles the human body needs and craves.
How to take action
Tired of feeling tired all the time? Fed up with that stuffy nose and strained eyes? Concerned that your home may be making you — or your kids — sluggish and sick?
There are a few steps you can take to make your indoors spaces brighter, fresher and overall healthier. Foldbjerg suggests taking measures like avoiding burning candles inside, keeping bathroom doors closed when showering, reducing usage of chemical-based cleaners, and ventilating homes and offices by opening windows and skylights three to four times a day. “All these tips can help reduce the level of pollutants present in your home,” he said.
Other steps like turning on the hood fan (or opening windows and skylights) when cooking, cleaning the house (especially carpets) regularly, or staging your living or workspace so that it gets an optimal amount of light.
The YouGov research, said Foldbjerg, reveals that we cannot continue to live in ignorance about the health of indoor domestic and public spaces. He hopes that the report will shed light upon this important issue, and help “put human and basic health needs center stage.”