What if I told you that the right plant inside your home or office can reduce stress, improve productivity, and save you a bundle in medical expenses? Greening the indoors is an ecomedicine practice which can be integrated into almost any lifestyle.
Welcome to another installment in my “What is EcoMedicine?” series, part of my goal to create a compendium of well-researched scientific blogs on the various kinds of nature therapy–which together form the new science of EcoMedicine. EcoMedicine maintains that your personal medical health and the health of your environment are two sides of the same coin. As you use nature to lower your blood pressure, assuage your anxiety, prevent and treat myopia, for example, you can also improve your surroundings, and make progress against climate change.
Today, we’ll be asking and answering the questions: what is greening the indoors? Who and what is it for? And what does the science say about it? Read on to learn more.
What is greening the indoors?
Thankfully, greening the indoors is one of those simple-to-grasp concepts that’s exactly what it sounds like. Greening the indoors is all about bringing the myriad health benefits that nature brings us indoors.
We all know—or at least, we should know, if we’re looking at the data—that spending time in nature can lower blood pressure, reduce stress, reverse myopia, and improve diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression. Indeed, part of what I’m aiming to do with these blogs is to get people outside more to look, feel and actually become healthier, more energetic and well.
But the reality is that people spend, on average, 65% of their lives inside their home and almost 90% of their lives indoors, according to 2018 data. Sure, there’s definitely ways we can get those numbers down if we try—but it’s always going to be true that humans spend at least a portion, if not a substantial portion, of their time indoors. So are we doomed to live and work in soul-sucking indoor environments totally divorced from the natural world? Greening the outdoors says no.
Greening the indoors posits that there are a number of ways we can bring nature inside—and that there’s a number of excellent reasons to do so. Nature has so much to offer us—why should those benefits stop at the threshold of our homes, offices, or schools? For that reason, it’s crucial that we not only urge people to get outside but teach them how to bring the outdoors in.
What does greening the indoors look like?
You might be wondering what “greening the indoors” looks like. Does one just paint their walls green and call it a day? The reality is a little more nuanced than that—and there’s a wide range of options that span from stocking up on your indoor plants all the way to green architecture that asks us to totally reimagine what the indoors is.
The most simple and accessible version of greening the indoors asks us to find innovative ways to incorporate natural elements into our existing structures. Easy ways of greening your indoors includes bringing in indoor plants and natural colors, improving your indoor air quality, allowing more natural light into the room, and using the soothing sounds and smells of nature (like running water, rustling leaves, or fragrant flowers). Each of these natural interventions listed above has their own set of benefits.
What does greening the indoors do for our health & well-being?
Bringing plants indoors is the most simple and effective way we can bring the benefits of the outdoors in. There’s a good amount of well-researched science on this issue, looking at environments from schools to offices to hospitals to homes.
One landmark study in 2009 looked at the effect of indoor plants on hospital patients, in which 90 patients recovering from a hemorrhoidectomy were randomly assigned to either control or plant-filled rooms. The result? Patients who had plants in their rooms reported less fatigue and pain, were hospitalized for shorter periods, experienced less anxiety, and reported higher hospital and room satisfaction than those without them.
Another study from researchers at the University of Technology, Sydney looked specifically at the effect of plants in an indoor classroom environment. They examined students’ performance in areas like spelling, math, reading, and science and found that introducing plants to their classroom environment boosted their performance by a significant 10 to 15% over a control group which studied in regular, plant-free classrooms.
And when it comes to the office, there’s even more good news. One 1995 controlled study, which looked at how adding plants to a windowless workplace affected its inhabitants, monitored participants’ blood pressure and emotion while they completed a simple, timed computer task in the presence or absence of plants. Participants in the plant-filled room were more productive—with a 12% quicker reaction time on the computer task—and less stressed, with their systolic blood pressure readings lowered by one to four units. What’s more, right after completing the task, those in the room with plants present reported feeling more attentive (an increase of 0.5 on a self-reported scale from one to five) then people in the room with no plants.
It’s clear: no matter what indoor space they’re added to, including indoor plants in the mix can reduce anxiety and stress while boosting performance for those inhabiting those spaces.
I actually did my own study on this phenomenon called Plant with a Doc—a four week, medically proven, nature-based stress management and burnout (moral distress) technology for employees—and even presented it at the University of Chicago. It’s definitely worth a look if you want to learn more about what this research looks like in action.
“Greening” is often used a shorthand for “making more natural,” as we’re doing here—but it’s also true that the color green itself is actually good for us, as is the other color most associated with the natural world: blue. One interesting 2019 controlled study looked at the effect of color on pain perception; its participants received pain stimuli preceded by one of six colors (red, green, orange, blue, pink, or yellow) or a blank slide, which served as the control. When patients rated their own pain, they found that the color of the slide they’d seen impacted their pain response. Specifically, participants rated pain preceded by red as being more painful compared with pain stimuli preceded by other colors—especially green and blue. So maybe ditch the red furniture and go with greens and blues to make your indoor space a safe and soothing place.
Other studies have found that having a “green view” helps us relax—which in turn helps us do better work when we are working. Take this 2015 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that studied the impact of 40-second “micro-breaks” spent looking at a green view on cognitive functioning and sustained attention for 150 university students. They found that students who had looked at “a flowering meadow green roof” as opposed to a bare concrete roof made significantly fewer errors on a post-treatment test than the bare roof viewers.
Only 40 seconds looking at a green space was enough to shift the brain into a more relaxed and aware state! That allowed students to process information better. Just imagine how much more we could learn, grow, and accomplish if the indoor spaces we spent so much time in brought a little more “green” to the table!
Air quality improvements
Improving the air quality in your indoor spaces can happen in a number of ways, whether it be simply opening up windows to let fresh air in, filling the room with plants, or investing in air purification machines.
Generally, the air quality indoors is not as good for us as the air outside; indoor air tends to have volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—major contaminants of indoor air—at concentrations often several times higher than outdoors. One 2006 paper detailed the results of a field-study on the effects of potted-plant presence on total VOC (TVOC) levels, measured in 60 offices (12 per treatment), over two 5–9 week periods, using three planting regimes, with two indoor plant species.
They found that “potted-plants can provide an efficient, self-regulating, low-cost, sustainable, bioremediation system for indoor air pollution, which can effectively complement engineering measures to reduce indoor air pollution, and hence improve human wellbeing and productivity.” Another great reason to stock up on more indoor plants!
Now, there is a bit of controversy about air cleaning plants, but it’s still clear that keeping plants indoors have a variety of benefits—and some research even suggests the air-cleaning elements might not be in the plant but in fact in its roots and soil. The concept is nevertheless internationally accepted and employed all over for air cleaning, not just inside but outside as well.
Natural elements (e.g. light, sounds, and smells)
It turns out that there’s a number of benefits we can get from incorporating natural elements into our indoor environments.
Natural light is a big one; a 2000 study taking place in Sweden tracked behavior, health, and cortisol for 90 students in four classrooms over a year; their findings indicated that students performed better in classrooms with natural daylight. They found that classrooms without natural daylight may actually disrupt hormone patterns, which influences a child’s ability to concentrate and cooperate and may even impact their physical growth.
An incredibly thorough Human Spaces global study of 7,600 office workers from 16 countries examined the impact of the physical office environment on employees’ well-being. One finding amongst many was that those working in environments which incorporated natural elements actually saw a 15% increase in their creativity. Artists, writers, and other creative types, take note!
What is green or biophilic architecture?
Once you’re convinced of the benefits of greening the indoors, green architecture is the logical next step. Instead of greening a regular building, green architecture asks us to rethink how we build and structure buildings from the get-go, allowing their natural health benefits to be more cohesively integrated into the building’s very structure. This can look like vertical walls of plants built right into the building, large windows or skylights built to allow ample natural light in, and even green plumbing and electrical systems that are gentle on the environment and reduce our use of water and energy sources.
So what makes a “green building?” A 2015 article defines it clearly: green buildings “focus on minimizing impacts to the environment through reductions in energy usage, water usage, and minimizing environmental disturbances from the building site” while also “aim[ing] to improve human health through design of healthy indoor environments.”
A building which minimizes its negative impacts on the environment while also maximizing the health benefits for those inside of it? Sounds like a win-win for all nature and health lovers!
Biophilic architecture is still fairly new, but already standards are emerging that could help make it more common, like the ones created by the folks at WELL Building Institute™ (IWBI™). Launched in 2014, WELL’s mission is to “lead the global movement to transform our buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive” and is now the “premier standard for buildings, interior spaces and communities seeking to implement, validate and measure features that support and advance human health and wellness.”
And with good reason! A 2017 report which looked at the impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health found that workers in green certified buildings scored 26.4% higher on cognitive function tests—even while controlling for annual earnings, job category and level of schooling—and had “30% fewer sick building symptoms than those in non-certified buildings.”
Of course, green architecture requires a different approach and isn’t necessarily accessible to regular folks looking to spruce up their living space—but as we learn more about how beneficial greening the indoors is, I hope it becomes more and more common for architects, designers, and the like to “think green” from the bottom up when creating new indoor spaces, as it could transform our regular old indoor spaces into an incredible public health tool.
Greening the indoors teaches us that we don’t have to go outside to experience all the major health benefits of the great outdoors. Simple fixes like indoor plants, natural light, and natural colors can reduce stress and pain while increasing relaxation, productivity, and creativity. More complex, structural changes in the very way we imagine and build our indoor spaces could have a powerful impact on both our health and the health of our environments. So when you can’t get outside, make sure you’re bringing the outdoors in—your mind and body will thank you!
(Remember: EcoMedicine is a far more diverse and practical field of medicine than people might realize—it’s much more than just “going outside!”—and so the purpose of these blogs is to show you the exciting range, diversity, and nuance of the many therapeutic interventions that fall under its umbrella. You can check out the other blogs I’ve written on the site, on topics like gardening for dementia, therapeutic horticulture, pet therapy, adventure therapy, blue care, ecotherapy, care farms, forest bathing, hydrotherapy, earthing and grounding, and light therapy.)
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