Interior design: an overlooked health promotion strategy

by Lindsay Miller on October 5, 2012

The retail world has figured out what store layout makes us spend the most money.
Corporate America has discovered what lighting tint optimizes worker productivity.
Healthcare systems have learned that noise reduction improves patient comfort and care.

Adapted from Microsoft Image Gallery

But the truth is that we don’t need to be sick or shopping or slaving away at work to be influenced by our environment. We can thoughtfully design our own surroundings in such a way as to promote health and harmony. And since we spend about 90% of our lives indoors, it might not be a bad idea to pay more attention to how our interior environment affects our well-being!

Let us start with lighting. Lighting is key for mood and energy regulation. Just think about Walmart. Have you ever felt as though those cold, pulsating fluorescent lights were literally draining all of the energy from your soul? Well, the research has something to say about this. The “gold standard” of light is–you guessed it–sunlight! In a prospective study that followed patients recovering from spinal surgery, Walch et al. (1) found that those exposed to higher-intensity sunlight reported less pain and stress and required significantly less pain medicine. Though the exact mechanisms are still unclear, most scientists believe sunlight affects levels of serotonin, often considered the “feel good” neurotransmitter.  Additionally, research (2) has shown that overexposure to artificial light, especially at night, can throw off your natural sleep-wake cycle, the disruption of which affects your energy levels throughout the day and may be linked to long-term metabolic conditions. Sunlight also has a direct and beneficial effect on physical health, since exposure to sunlight triggers the production of Vitamin D (3), which is thought to be a key player in bone health and potentially in protecting against high blood pressure, some cancers, and certain immune diseases.

Feeling more relaxed? Image courtesy of dan/

When it comes to decor, like light, natural is better. Natural decor elements, such as plants, images of nature, and the like, have been consistently associated with reduced stress levels in patient care settings. A while back, Ulrich et al. (4) found that blood donors who were shown a video of a natural setting had lower pulse rates (that is, they were calmer) than those shown a video of an urban setting. Another study (5) found that the presence of greenery in a health care setting had a stress-reducing effect for patients and that this effect may be explained by the “perceived attractiveness” of the plants. So we may be biophiliacs, after all. But the “green is good” trend may go beyond psychological effects: researchers (6) have demonstrated that indoor plants can actually reduce air contaminants, like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and improve air humidity. And air quality certainly impacts health, particularly cardiovascular and respiratory health. We are what we breath, right?


Health never looked so chic! Pillows, rugs, and linens can help to absorb ambient noise.
Source: Microsoft Office Image Gallery

Finally, as an ambulance siren wails through my window, it’s hard to forget about noise. There is a whole body of research that links noise exposure (7) with a variety of negative outcomes, such as stress, increased annoyance, lowered work performance, hearing problems, as well as some more chronic conditions like hypertension, or high blood pressure. Think about it from an evolutionary standpoint: it is advantageous for us to react to noise, as that noise might signal a predator or dangerous situation. In other words, noise evokes our “fight or flight” response–triggering the production of stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline, which in turn raise our heart rate and blood pressure. Although the effects for women were greater than for men, Chang et al. (8) confirmed that increased environmental noise exposure contributed to both temporary and sustained increases in blood pressure among young adults. If you are still reading (and haven’t disregarded interior design as a valid health promotion strategy), you might be wondering: what does noise have to do with interior design? Well, a lot of the decor items that we fill our homes with–heavy curtains, plush pillows, thick rugs, anything “fluffy”– can help to absorb noise. So, if you are like me and have an unnecessary number of throw pillows in your home, now you have a legitimate “health” reason for it!



(1) Walch, J. M., Rabin, B. S., Day, R., Williams, J. N., Choi, K., & Kang, J. D. (2005). The effect of sunlight on postoperative analgesic medication use: A prospective study of patients undergoing spinal surgery. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(1), 156-163.

(2) Navara, K. J., & Nelson, R. J. (2007). The dark side of light at night: physiological, epidemiological, and ecological consequences. Journal of Pineal Research, 43(3), 215-224.

(3) Holick, M.F. (2006). High prevalence of vitamin D inadequacy and implications for health.
Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 81(3), 353-373.

(4) Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., Losito, B.D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M.A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology,11(3), 201-230.

(5) Dijsktra, K., Pieterse, M.E., & Pruyn, A. (2008). Stress-reducing effects of indoor plants in the built healthcare environment: The mediating role of perceived attractiveness. Preventive Medicine, 47(3),  Issue 3, 279-283.

(6) Lim, Y., Kim, H., Yang, J., Kim, K., Lee, J., & Shin, D. Improvement of indoor air quality by houseplants in new-built apartment buildings. (2009).Journal of the Japanese Society for Horticultural Science, (78)4, 456-462.

(7) Passchier-Vermeer, W., & Passchier, W.F. (2000). Noise exposure and public health.Environmental Health Persepctives (108)1, 123–131.

(8) Chang, T., Liu, C., Hsieh, H., Bao, B., & Lai, J. (2012). Effects of environmental noise exposure on 24-h ambulatory vascular properties in adults.Environmental Research (118),112-117.



***Updated 10/6/2012***