Esther Sternberg, MD, is one of the world’s leading researchers in the complex and evolving science of mind-body interaction and its effects on illness and health. Section chief of neuroendocrine immunology and behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Sternberg currently serves as director of NIMH’s Integrative Neural Immune Program and co-chair of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Intramural Program on Research in Women's Health. IDEA Fitness Journal recently interviewed her about the interrelationship of mind, body, perception and place, and how that relationship affects the health and fitness community.
IDEA Fitness Journal (IFJ): Can the design of an exercise studio or a large workout facility contribute to a client’s well-being? And can you give exercise professionals advice on how their “place” can function better from a visual and physical perspective? How will this help their clients?
Dr. Sternberg: Nobody to my knowledge has specifically addressed exercise facilities, but I think you could consider them in the same way that the newer hospital wings are designed. The beneficial design features include views of nature. Now, often an exercise facility is in a city and you don’t have a view of nature. For example, my exercise facility is located underground, but the pool area has skylights, and I just love to swim looking up at those skylights. So you can add features that include views of the environment or nature.
But if you don’t have the luxury of having a view of nature, lighting is important. Lighting and colors. It is difficult to do well-designed studies to prove the effects of colors on the walls, but blues and greens are thought to be calming, and reds and yellows are thought to be stimulating and exciting. There are a number of studies showing that full-spectrum sunlight or lighting that mimics full-spectrum sunlight is good for improving people’s moods. In depression literature it is well-established that any form of full-spectrum sunlight is beneficial.
Also, sounds of nature are very important—flowing water, for instance. Smells, fragrances, are extremely important in reminding people of comfort. I find when I go to my health club that the smell relaxes me because I’m anticipating the feeling I will get when I swim. It’s learned association. It’s an association that comes from me having repeatedly gone into that environment, feeling relaxed with the whole ritual of swimming, sitting in the hot tub and then taking a hot shower. The whole ritual is very relaxing. There’s no question that smells can trigger memories that can either be stressful or relaxing. If you learn to associate a certain fragrance with feeling relaxed, then it will trigger relaxation even without the benefit of having done that ritual.
IFJ: You’re really saying that people who own the studios need to pay attention to things like color, sounds and aromas?
Sternberg: Absolutely. A noisy studio is not going to be relaxing. Now, people may argue, well, we don’t want people to be relaxed and falling asleep. But there’s a certain level of noise that is stressful, and no matter how much you want people to be stimulated, you don’t want them to be overstimulated. Attention should be paid to all of the features of the environment that you see, hear, smell or touch that can affect people’s moods and, ultimately, their desire to exercise.
IFJ: Can you also talk about the effects of music in an exercise facility?
Sternberg: Music is very important, but it should be the right kind of music for the activity. Ambient music in the background can certainly often set the mood and the tone at an exercise facility. People have always known that music can alter moods—we know this from generations of art and culture, but only recently have scientists developed technologies that could be used to understand how emotion and music are connected, and to prove that music can affect moods.
Sternberg is the author of two books, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being (Harvard University Press 2009) and The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (W.H. Freeman 2001).
To read our complete interview with her, please see the article “How the Mind, the Body and the Environment Affect Our Health” in the online IDEA Library or in July–August 2011 IDEA Fitness Journal.