How Building Design Can Encourage Physical Fitness

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for mortality, causing 6-9% of deaths – three to five million deaths - per year worldwide. Millions of people fail to achieve the minimum level of activity necessary to help prevent type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. All healthy adults should engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days per week, and muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week to help maintain good health.

One of the factors known to impact physical activity levels is the built environment. Neighborhood walkability, access to and use of mass transit, access to activity facilities near homes and workplaces, stair accessibility in buildings, active furnishings, and many other factors affect physical activity levels.

The integration of visually appealing interior pathways and stairs within buildings can provide a convenient way to incorporate short periods of physical activity. To encourage the use of stairs and paths, signage, artwork, music, daylighting, and views to the outside should be incorporated. Stairs should be located within 25 feet of the main entrance and be clearly visible.

Property owners can provide on-site fitness programs and facilities within buildings. Spaces with more than 10 regular occupants should provide complimentary access to a dedicated exercise space that is at least 200 square feet per occupant, up to a maximum of 4,000 square feet. This space should include both cardio and muscle-strengthening fitness equipment as well as space for stretching, yoga, or Pilates. Creating cyclist and pedestrian-friendly environments around the building can incentivize activity. Providing benches, chairs and tables, drinking fountains, and water bottle refilling stations along the building’s walking routes will encourage people to walk. Making the property exterior visually appealing with a water fountain, plaza, garden, green space, a trail network, nice landscaping, public art is important. Mitigating any noise pollution problems is also key.

Providing bicycle storage and a tire pump on-site will encourage more people to use a bicycle as transportation instead of a car. Providing separate and secure bicycle storage for at least 5% of regular building occupants, as well as short-term bicycle storage for at least 2.5% of all visitors is a good rule of thumb. Showers and lockers must also be provided. One shower with a changing facility for the first 100 regular building occupants plus one additional shower for every 150 regular occupants, and one locker for every 5 regular building occupants is recommended.

Most of us spend the majority of our time indoors in a seated position. Prolonged sitting is associated with a number of adverse health conditions including obesity, cancer, back problems, and fatigue just to name a few. Sitting more than 3 hours per day is associated with a 2-year lower life expectancy. Regular exercise doesn’t negate the health consequences of long periods of sitting, so it’s important to create opportunities to reduce it. Standing desks can be provided, and it’s recommended that everyone within a workspace have an opportunity to work at a standing desk at least part of the day. This can be accomplished with adjustable height desks, standard desks with a desk-top adjustable height stand, or a combination of standard desks and standing desks that people can move to. Treadmill desks, bicycle desks, and portable desk pedal machines can also be provided.

Physical inactivity poses one of the biggest modern threats to public health. It’s estimated to be responsible for 30% of ischemic heart disease, 27% of type 2 diabetes, and 21-25% of breast and colon cancer cases. It also increases the odds of having a stroke 20-30% and it shaves years off of lives. Property owners, architects, and interior designers can make a huge impact on the health and fitness of building occupants.