Healing Spaces

Find health, happiness and work productivity through place, space and mind-body connection.

Fall 2019

Dr. Esther Sternberg’s office in a small bungalow just off campus looks out onto a shady courtyard with orange bird of paradise, fragrant Arabian jasmine, ornamental grasses and purple heart ground cover.

It’s a setting fit for a physician-researcher who wants a great office view for all 15,000 of the University of Arizona’s faculty and staff — because, she says, their health depends on it. 

In her 2009 book, “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being,” Sternberg tells us that researchers have known since 1984, through a study published in Science magazine, that hospital patients recover up to one day faster in rooms with a view of nature than in rooms looking at a brick wall.

So, if sun and a view are better for hospital patients, what about office workers who spend a quarter of their time in 
their workplace? 

Sternberg began researching this question at the National Institutes of Health while studying the brain’s stress response and arthritis. 

 A photograph of Esther Sternberg, smiling with her arms crossed

Esther Sternberg / Kris Hanning, UA Biocommunications photo

“We were looking at the science of the mind-body connection,” she says. “How the immune system talks to the brain and the brain talks to the immune system. How stress can make you sick.

“Then, in the year 2000, the director of research of the U.S. General Services Administration, which builds and operates office space for more than one million federal employees, asked if I would help him prove whether the built environment impacts health, beyond removing toxins. How can we design space and place to improve people’s health, well-being, performance, productivity? So that launched me on this path.” 

Sternberg and her colleagues began by putting portable devices on workers to track their physiological stress levels. They found that workers in new, well-ventilated, light and airy spaces with views were significantly less stressed — even when they went home at night — than those in old, poorly ventilated spaces in a retrofitted office building with higher mechanical noise.

Sternberg’s research caught the attention of Drs. Andrew Weil and Victoria Maizes at the UA’s Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. They recruited her to create a research program at the center.

Sternberg agreed to come if she could also create an institute linking the College of Medicine, the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture to research and train professionals on the built environment’s effects on health. In 2014, she became the founding director of the UA Institute on Place, Wellbeing and Performance, where she is leading a variety of efforts examining empirical, objectively measured data relating built environments to people’s health and well-being. 

Sternberg’s team recently published a study in which they outfitted office workers with wearable stress and activity monitors. They found that workers in open office settings were 32% more physically active at the office than those in private offices and 20% more active than those in cubicles. Importantly, workers who were more physically active at the office had 14% less physiological stress outside the office compared with those less physically active. This was the first known study to investigate the effects of office workstation type on these objective measures.

Sternberg emphasizes that the term “open office” doesn’t mean one big room where everyone continually works side-by-side. A well-designed open office includes many choices: conference rooms for meetings, casual gathering spaces, smaller rooms for phone calls or intensively focused work and calming natural spaces. 

But having done the research to show that the old models of private offices and cubicles are unhealthy, she says she will leave the next phase to architects: designing new office spaces that accommodate various types of work and personal preferences while contributing to healthier workplaces. In that design process, she emphasizes, “It is important to ask people what they want.” 

On campus, the Campus Master Plan will include improved design elements when plans are drawn to renovate older campus buildings. In some cases, ideas for improvements have already moved beyond the report and discussion stage. Many elements, for example, have been incorporated into the new $50 million Banner – University Medical Center tower. New and renovated spaces include features like abundant natural light, local artwork, warm desert colors and views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Ceiling and flooring materials reduce noise.

Outdoors, gardens and pathways help patients, guests and staff relax through movement and contact with nature. 

“Because we spend 90% of our time indoors, anything that we can do to increase the effect of the built environment on improving health is going to contribute to the prevention of disease, and that, for me, is the next frontier of integrative health,” Sternberg says. In fact, Sternberg and her team are incorporating all these design elements for health and well-being into the new Andrew Weil Center building, which will embody the spirit of integrative health. 

As Sternberg told a group of young architecture students in a speech a few years ago, “You design professionals are partners with us health professionals in the health of this nation. We cannot do it without you. We need design professionals to design the spaces so that people can stay healthy, happy and productive and live a long and independent life.”

Healthy Workday Experience

You might not work in an office that affords you a beautiful view of nature, but here are three things that Sternberg suggests you do to have a healthier workday experience.

Standing desks help reduce back pain and keep you active. If you can’t arrange a standing desk, set an alarm reminding you to get up and move every 15-20 minutes.

Seek sunlight
People need sunlight to be at their best intellectually or emotionally. Sternberg encourages people to orient their offices in ways that allow them to be as close to windows and full-spectrum light as possible. Even better, a brisk outdoor walk can wake up all your systems and boost productivity.

Too much sitting can be associated with muscle stiffness and joint pain. But frequent, simple stretches can help counteract the stress these can put on your body and ultimately your health. 


My Wellness Coach App
The Andrew Weil Center is building a new self-care mobile app, My Wellness Coach, which will help users set and achieve health goals in seven domains including movement, sleep, nutrition, relationships, resiliency, spirituality and environment.


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