What do these three subjects have to do with one another?
RVi Project Director Patrick Smith recently spoke on this topic at the Austin Center for Architecture. Presenting to the Architecture for Health Committee, Patrick explained the link. “The reality is most of us didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast this morning, we spent on average 25.8 minutes in our cars commuting to work, and when we arrived, we were probably running late for something we were already behind on. Stress is all around us. Studies have shown that how we deal with stress has a great impact on our health, and we now have a way to measure this impact – because stress actually changes our genes,” he said.
This is an illustration of a chromosome. You can see the DNA strands inside. The ends of the DNA strands are protected by telomeres (think of the plastic nubs at the ends of your shoelaces that keep them from unraveling).
Each time a cell divides, so does the DNA. Each time the DNA divides, the telomere at the end becomes shorter. Eventually it becomes so short, the strand unravels and the cell dies or mutates. This is pretty much what happens when we age. But age is not the only thing that shortens telomeres.
Studies have shown that people who experience stress over long periods of time have shorter telomeres. Shorter telomeres are linked to cardiovascular disease, vascular dementia, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and diabetes.
But all hope is not lost for those shortened telomeres. This is where nature comes into the equation.
In 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of telomerase, an enzyme that helps to replenish telomeres. Numerous studies have shown that reducing stress increases the production of telomerase in your body, thus extending the life of your cells.
As designers of our own environment, we are positioned to have a direct effect on reducing the conditions of stress. If we can create environments that are less stressful, we are actually helping people on a cellular level.
Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese practice of walking and breathing in nature. There are 42 forest stations established by the Japanese government for this specific purpose. But this isn’t some eastern medicinal secret. It is something you probably know in your gut from the walks you have taken in the woods.
Since gut feeling isn’t usually enough for evidence-based design, we have more studies that prove the positive health benefits from being in nature. For example, one study involved caregivers who took three 2-hour walks in the woods and then measured their blood and urine for several days after the walks. They showed a measurable decrease in adrenalin and noradrenalin (indicating a reduction in stress). They also showed a significant increase in the production of NK cells, which travel through our bodies and identify damaged or mutated cells, killing them by injecting proteins into them.
Further studies have shown that it is not just the happy experience or distraction from stressful thoughts that generates these positive effects. Plants emit a chemical compound known as phytoncide. Studies in controlled environments have shown that exposure to phytoncide has a similar effect as walking in the woods – it reduces stress and promote NK cell development. So when we are in nature, there is actually a chemical reaction that takes place in our bodies which is shown to reduce stress!
There are many things we can do as designers to reduce stress in the environment – from our homes, to our offices, to our hospitals and long-term care centers. Bringing more nature into our built environment is a powerful tool. As designers, we must look for ways to foster this connection with nature in the built environment – not because it feels good, or looks good, or provides a good distraction – but because there is a lot of evidence out there that supports the idea that being in nature reduces stress, improves health, and prolongs life.