Could your home be sabotaging your health? Here’s how to get it right

Wellness at home - Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster
Wellness at home – Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster

A house is made of bricks and beams – but is it possible to design or tweak our living spaces for a healthier, fitter and happier life? As we feather our nests in readiness for autumn, perhaps optimising our living spaces for both working from home and working out from home, spending even more time within our four walls than usual, it’s an important question.

According to a study by health and fitness app Oro, 85 per cent of British people haven’t been to a gym since they reopened and over a third have put on weight – no doubt compounded by extra hours spent sitting at home (a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found homeworkers are spending 49 minutes longer in front of a screen each day, four extra hours per week, than when they were in the office). From creating areas to offer respite from Zoom calls and spaces conducive to encouraging us to move more in between, a productive WFH space and wellbeing within the home are more important than ever.

A new book by interior designer Jamie Gold details how to achieve this: in Wellness By Design: A Room by Room Guide to Optimising Your Home for Health, Fitness and Happiness, she encourages us to ask whether our homes are supporting our health – or sabotaging it in ways both big and small.

“So many people are working from home right now. For some, it might be temporary and setting up a permanent home office doesn’t make sense, but if you’re going to be working full-time at a desk for hours, at least create an ergonomic seating arrangement. I really want people to know that their homes can support their wellbeing and serve them better at this crucial time,” she says. Homeworking has become a way of life for many, with one in five people working from home full-time at the start of this month, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

“‘Health’ and ‘home’ are two words that aren’t often used together, but there are vital links between where – and how well – we live,” explains Gold, a professional kitchen and bathroom designer and Mayo Clinic-certified wellness coach. “When people think, ‘I want to get healthy’, they might think about eating vegetables, quitting smoking, or exercising – not redoing their kitchen, bathroom or bedroom. But thinking about your space holistically can be a secret weapon. I wanted to provide ideas for people to make their space not just more attractive, but healthier as well.”

Jamie Gold - Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster
Jamie Gold – Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster

Gold herself became sedentary and piled on the pounds in the lead-up to her marriage breakdown in her late 40s; fortunately, her home in San Diego had a communal heated pool, and swimming laps helped her to rediscover the active life she had enjoyed in her 20s, overhauling her lifestyle to become a born-again marathon runner. Now, she’s a self-proclaimed “midlife weekend warrior”, and intends to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro before she hits 60.

But fear not: you don’t need a pool or an ambition to scale mountains – she has ideas for rented flats and home updaters, as well as for full renovations. “You may not own your own home, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the healthiest living space possible,” she tells me (over Zoom). “We meal-prep and cook in our kitchens, unwind in our bathrooms and restore our energy in our bedrooms,” she explains. “The home should support us in our everyday endeavours.”

When it comes to fitness spaces, she points out light, portable fitness gear can be used anywhere. “Just having fitness equipment at home makes it more achievable – but a barre, mirror and stylish storage can help create a welcoming, well-equipped yoga space.”

Simple changes to things like lighting and storage can make a difference to how you feel and function, argues Gold, whose “wellness equation” has five key tenets, to apply in the home: accessibility (enjoying your home unimpeded by injury, illness, disability or age); safety (security, good indoor air quality, ventilation in the kitchen and bathroom, slip-resistant floors); functionality (optimising rooms for peak performance, whether eating, working or sleeping); decor (the details that enhance physical and emotional wellness, inspiring comfort and joy, like a wool rug to soften a wooden floor, mood-lifting family photos or in Gold’s case, a display of race medals); and, finally, connections to nature (this might include plants, soothing water features and an abundance of natural light, to purify the air and encourage an in-tune sleep cycle – even shells from the beach).

Sophie Attwood, who runs interiors company Husoe Home, also recommends growing indoor plants in your home to boost wellbeing, purify the air and improve your WFH set-up. “The days are getting darker, and spending more time inside than out can leave many of us struggling with mood. It’s not just the weather – the chaos of Covid-19 has had a significant impact on how stressed we’re feeling. Greenery and nature helps us to clear our heads and feel calm. Incorporating plants into your decor at home can improve mood and diminish stress: studies have shown that indoor plants improve concentration and productivity by up to 15 per cent.”

Plants are also scientifically proven to increase air quality: research by Nasa has revealed that certain houseplants can remove up to 87 per cent of air toxins in 24 hours. For an abundance of natural light, Rebecca Snowden, interior style adviser at Furniture Choice, suggests placing a mirror opposite the window to reflect and double the sunshine coming in. “This might also be a good time to shift your workspace to be as close to the window as possible, to take advantage of the light and rest your eyes by looking outside,” she says.

Sleep - Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster
Sleep – Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster

According to Gold, the ways your home can negatively impact well-being range from the obviously harmful (like asbestos) to seemingly small things that nevertheless have an effect on vital functions such as sleep. “Street lights blazing through your curtains might affect the quality sleep you aim to get on weeknights ahead of a long working day: blackout shades or liners can easily solve the problem,” she points out. “Features such as dimmed lights for relaxation can further regulate disrupted sleep.”

Eating well, of course, is essential for any wellbeing overhaul, and the kitchen, for Gold, is the armoury from which you can create healthy meals, “your home’s fuelling station”: roll-out trays and swing-out unit storage can make your utensils more accessible. “If you spend Sunday evening prepping meals for the week ahead, that might mean several hours standing on a hard floor – fatiguing to the feet, shins, knees, hips and back,” says Gold, who recommends adding an anti-fatigue mat to make involved cookery sessions less wearing on joints.

“When kitchens are poorly planned, cooking is a hassle. This book was written before the pandemic, but what I talk about in terms of reducing the spread of germs on surfaces by decluttering has extra value now.”

Wellness by Design - Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster
Wellness by Design – Brent Haywood/Simon & Schuster

Much of what Gold suggests seems like common sense, but as well as being practical, her approach is tied to emotion. “Choose decorative details that match your passions in life. That way you’ll have something delightful to look at when you do your least favourite chore,” she explains. She says features that benefit emotional health are “the difference between a house and a home”, especially during times of high stress (such as, say, a global pandemic).

To de-stress, Gold suggests creating an electronics-free sanctuary, perhaps with a lavender oil diffuser. “Scent is the sense with the deepest ties to memory, so fragrances that evoke happy emotions or associations create emotional wellness in a permanent or a temporary home. Clutter can exacerbate stress, but a quiet zone oriented towards nature can have a healing effect.”

Both Gold and Snowden suggest creating a reading nook; Snowden goes a step further, and recommends also dedicating a space to your other hobbies. “Along with work and rest, making space for enrichment goes a long way toward enhancing wellness in the home,” she says.

“It’s important to prioritise having a separation between work, rest and play. One easy way to do this is by creating distinct spaces and zones in the house: part of the home that focuses on a healthy or ­creative activity, one that feels restorative.”

Wellness by Design by Jamie Gold (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) is published on Oct 1