Mayo Clinic Launches Ambitious Study On How Being Indoors All The Time Affects Us

We spend 90% of our lives inside. A new Mayo Clinic lab is researching exactly what this does to our bodies, our health, and our mood.

Here’s a depressing statistic: Americans spend only 10% of their time outside. That’s only around two and a half hours a day that we’re breathing fresh air and feeling the sun on our faces. The rest of our lives, we’re rushing between our homes and offices and a variety of other indoor places like the gym, the mall, the grocery store, or restaurants.

While the medical community regularly tells us that spending time outdoors can make us healthier, there hasn’t yet been a comprehensive analysis of how and to what extent being indoors all the time is really affecting us. Sleep labs have done cutting-edge research on how environmental factors affect our circadian rhythms, and scientists have studied how exposure to artificial light affects our health. But how does it all fit together? How do all the materials, smells, lights, and sounds in our indoor spaces impact our bodies and minds?

The Mayo Clinic and Delos, a real estate company with an emphasis on wellness, have partnered to launch the most ambitious study yet of how life indoors influences the human body and brain. To do this, they’ve set up a state-of-the-art space called the Well Living Lab in Rochester, Minnesota, that is designed to measure every aspect of an indoor space and track how it is affecting a person’s biological functions.

What is interesting about the Lab is that, upon first glance, it looks like a series of generic rooms you’d see anywhere. When I toured the lab, the rooms had been configured to create an open-plan office with boring furniture, a bedroom with a plush bed, a TV outfitted with a video game console, and a kitchen like one you might find in a studio apartment. The rooms can be easily reconfigured to form a giant office, eight studio apartments, 12 hotel rooms, or whatever combination of rooms necessary for each study.

Beneath the surface, though, every aspect of the rooms is being monitored. The bed contains sensors to determine exactly how a person is lying down and how much pressure is being exerted on each body part. There are cameras everywhere. Light from the windows is measured around the clock. Even the air is being tracked.

“We were very deliberate about ensuring that the sensors were invisible to people in the lab,” says Peter Scialla, the COO of Delos. “We want subjects to feel as natural as possible in this space.”

Behind the rooms, there is an impressive control center where the data from all of the rooms is processed and where each part of the lab is managed. This will allow scientists to replicate studies exactly or modify them in small ways to learn new things. After studies, all of the information gathered will be analyzed and turned into reports.

So who would subject themselves to this level of scrutiny for the good of science? The Mayo Clinic is tapping local communities that would be willing to be guinea pigs for different experiments. “Many people involved with Mayo see their mission as contributing to the furthering of medical science,” Dr. Brent Bauer, medical director of the lab, tells Fast Company. “We’ve found that med students and Mayo employees are generally happy to participate in experiments like this.”

Mayo will also be reaching out to Rochester residents who might be willing to earn some money to spend several days or weeks living in the lab as if it were a hotel or a studio apartment. However, the Well Living Lab team says that all participants will be thoroughly briefed about how invasive the study will be.

The lab will begin running studies early next year and will release results as they become available. The findings could be very useful to the medical community, but also to companies in the wellness space, like Delos, which has invested heavily in building the infrastructure for this lab. Delos, which creates homes, offices, and buildings designed to enhance human health, is known for pioneering the WELL Building Standard that measures how indoor spaces impact people. The results of the Lab’s studies could directly impact projects at Delos.

Other companies have been invited to invest in particular studies at the Lab that might provide useful insights to them. However, the Well Living Lab staff emphasized that these corporate sponsors will not have a say in the research design, and all results will be made available to medical researchers and the public.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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