What is Ambient Wellness?
It is not a phrase you hear often, but Ambient Wellness was tipped by Trendwatching.com in 2016 to be a key topic for shaping the future of the health and wellbeing sector. Whilst the phrase may not yet have caught on, they were right. Whilst we often look inwardly to improve our mental health with meditation practice, diets and physical exercise, our surrounding environment can have a huge effect on us physically, mentally and emotionally.
The word ambient means surrounding, encompassing or encircling. We often think of it in terms of background noise, temperature, light or even smell. On a small-scale, consider how we feel if the room is too hot, too cold or we are in a noisy traffic area. What about the effect of long-term exposure to these sensations (rise or drop in body temperature, frustration, even anger)? Perhaps when considering how our immediate surroundings are affecting our own wellbeing we should determine if they are hugging us or bugging us! On a larger scale, environmental issues such as pollution and global warming may have long-term effects on our wellbeing.
Often, we have to make a decision and take a physical action to make our surroundings more comfortable (turn the music, lighting or heating up or down). Technology has helped us to have much more control over our surroundings, particularly in the home. Lighting and heating are no longer binary, on or off, or difficult to control (log fires). We now have dimmer switches, thermostats and even wireless control of lighting, music and heating.
Ambient wellness can be considered as anything built into our surroundings that has a positive effect on our health, happiness or prosperity. It isn’t a new idea, if you have ever been to a spa or treatment centre you will have felt the serene experience they set with soft lighting, pleasant scents and soothing background music. They are pleasurable places to be, designed to help you start relaxing as soon as you enter.
There has been some research showing that certain types of ambient lighting not only increases our level of alertness but can have an emotional and biological effect too 1. Fluorescent lights, in particular, are bad for eye strain due to the fact that they flicker. Although normally imperceptible, low rates of flicker can cause eye strain. Full spectrum lighting on the other hand mimics natural light more closely. It is better for preventing eye strain and may improve mood and even productivity.
Humans and animals have a deep connection with light, we are generally awake when it’s light and sleep when it’s dark. We benefit from a certain amount of sunlight on our skin and can be damaged by too much exposure. Most plants can only grow with adequate access to sunlight. Despite all the lighting technology available we still try to flood natural light into our homes and offices. Having the right type and amount of ambient lighting is very important to our moods and health.
Although light can be beneficial, artificial lighting may have several detrimental effects for humans, animals and plant life. We have an ever-increasing issue with “light pollution” caused by street lighting, car headlights, neon signs and lit billboards. This prevents most people, especially in urban areas, from experiencing the true dark of night. This artificial light can have an effect on the circadian rhythm of living things. This topic is explored by Ron Chepesiuk in his paper “Missing the Dark: Health effects of light pollution 2. The paper highlights research into the ecological effects of artificial light. This includes how light can distract nature, such as turtles, heading for the sea as well as preventing trees adjusting to the seasons. Other research discussed indicates some links between prolonged exposure and cancer (particularly in night shift workers).
Last week, at work, there were road works just outside with almost constant noise of machinery being used to dig up the road and cut pavement blocks. At best it was difficult to concentrate, hold a phone conversation or think and at worst it became almost intolerable. I work in an open office environment with constant noise of my cubicle neighbours holding conversations, phone calls and meetings but after a while you can tune this background noise out. The road works however, were a whole other level and actually became stressful. This gave me first hand knowledge of the how ambient sound can affect our wellbeing.
Julian Treasure, Chairman of the Sound Agency indicates that “the world is getting noisier, and our health and
productivity are suffering as a result” in a white paper published by Biamp. In his foreword for the paper, Julian explains that data from multiple academic research studies shows detrimental effects of noise on our health, ability to learn and productivity levels. The paper details examples such as the social impact of road noise (even links from traffic noise to cardiac arrest). In contrast, it explains the positive effects that can be obtained if architects design buildings and create environments with sound in mind. These include faster convalescence and even reduction in crime rates. Read the full white paper here or watch Julian’s Ted Talk about sound health below:
Smell can be very powerful, it plays a large role in how we perceive our environment (and even other people). It can evoke memories and help us sense danger. Scientific evidence shows that just like sound and light, pleasing odours can also enhance wellbeing. Pleasant aromas can have a positive effect on morale and increase productivity. Think how you physically feel when you smell a log fire or your favourite meal cooking compared, perhaps, to the clinical smell of a hospital.
Just like the luxury environment of the spa mentioned above, stores, hotels and corporations use aromas to encourage different behaviours, e.g.:
- Retailers use ambient scenting to encourage people to linger in their stores
- Estate agents have known the value of putting on the coffee or filling the home with the smell of freshly baked bread for years!
- Gyms use scenting to remove bad odours and create a welcoming atmosphere
Ambient Wellness at work
It has long been known that at a basic level, employees are less motivated if they are in an uncomfortable environment. Corporations are finally catching on to the importance of maintaining and even improving their employees physical and mental wellbeing. Many modern companies now try to create a healthy environment in the office with plenty of indoor plants and “chill out”, or relaxation areas. These enable employees to take rests from their computer screens and meet informally. Many also offer free fruit, healthy meals in the work canteen and healthcare options.
Ambient Wellness ideas for the office
- Maximise natural light
- Use full spectrum lights to avoid eyestrain
- Have plenty of green plants or green spaces
- Create separate relaxation areas
- Encourage bring your dog to work days
- Install water coolers
- Introduce exercise or games area – ping-pong table, walking paths
- Offer subsidised health care
- Ensure plenty of fresh air ventilation
Ambient Wellness Products
There are now a range of products designed to give us finite control over our environment. These include:
- Smart lighting – wireless controlled natural, white and warm lights for different times of day.
Philips are now offering a range of smart lamps that can be controlled wirelessly to offer different ambient lighting effects. These can be varied at different times of day for waking up, reading or at night. They claim their Hue range of lights can mimic natural light and will help energise or relax you. The lighting range is controllable via apps and smart hubs such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Reviews indicate the prices are currently quite high for this new technology but it is easy to set up and has easy integration with other products.
- Ambient sound machines – offering everything from white noise, natural sounds (rain, waterfalls or bird song) to your favourite music
- Wireless temperature controllers – can be controlled from wireless thermostats of even from apps on your phone (switch your heating on before you get home)
- Aromatherapy and scent machines – from small plugins which help remove cooking smells in the home to ultrasonic aromatherapy humidifier.
Wearable wellbeing technology
There are now a myriad of health and activity monitors on the market which can record our heart rates, sleep patterns, inform us we need to move around more and even to correct our posture. More focused medical monitors can measure a host of biometric data such as: blood pressure, oxygen levels, skin temperature and respiration rate. These systems can tell patients when to take medication and even send an alert if a person falls or an epilepsy episode is detected. Whilst these smart monitors don’t actively change our environment they are having a positive effect on our wellbeing without us having to lift a finger (unless your activity monitor tells you to!). They may eventually link to other technologies that control our environment such as automatically turning up the thermostat if our skin temperature drops below a certain level.
Another form of wearable technology is intelligent clothing or smart fabrics. These clothes can increase or decrease body temperature during a workout and even protect us from germs. Activity and health monitoring are also being built into textiles so we may not all be wearing smart bracelets for much longer.
Living with like-minded people in small eco-friendly housing projects has been quite common for some time. Now it is becoming even more mainstream as developers discover the growing popularity for wellness communities. In the USA some of these projects are set amongst nature, the houses are built with open porches to encourage neighbours to interact. The residents walk everywhere amongst the natural surroundings, grow organic produce and strive for sustainability. Others may have a more luxury spa like feel, built within hotel developments with plenty of physical and mental wellbeing enhancing services available.
The future of Ambient Wellness
Moving forward, we may see architects and builders considering the wellbeing of their building’s occupants in more detail. They will be fitting more products into our home and office environments that passively enhance our happiness, health and emotions.
Clothes manufacturers will incorporate smart textiles to help us maintain fitness and health.
….and don’t forget the Apps and Gadgets, we can expect a myriad of these. Some will benefit us and some we are sure will be passing fads.
1 Govén et al. (2007). The Background Luminance and Colour Temperatures Influence on Alertness and Mental Health. 26th session of the CIE In Proceedings Volume 2CIE p.6-611
2 Chepesiuk (2009) Missing the Dark: Health effects of light pollution. Environmental Health Perspectives. 117(1): A20–A27.
Trendwatching.com – Ambient Wellness