Ah, the sight of a clean space: laundry put away, shelves dusted, rugs pristine, and a sink without a single dish. You can already feel a sense of calm coming over you, right? Research shows that an orderly space can zap stress and boost focus and positive emotions. And that's on top of banishing allergens and dust that may carry pollutants.
While you're wiping and scrubbing, be mindful of what you're using. Some cleaning agents can irritate your eyes, nose, lungs, and skin, and even lead to headaches, says Patisaul. But there are plenty of nontoxic, healthy products on the market that can help you wipe up life's messes. In fact, many mainstream brands are moving away from hazardous chemicals and reformulating their products with ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide, says Samara Geller, senior research and database analyst at the Environmental Working Group in San Francisco.
"Truthfully, plain soap and water can help you tackle most cleaning projects," says Val Oliveira, founder of Val's Services, a cleaning and organizing company based in Chicago. While you're scrubbing and shining, opt for reusable wipes (Oliveira likes microfiber) and plastic-free sponges and brushes.
Not going into an office has its perks—but some of the habits we've picked up while telecommuting are not so good for us. In fact, in 2020, researchers at the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli in Naples, Italy, found that 70 percent of those surveyed complained of back, hand, wrist, and shoulder pain as a result of working from home since the beginning of the pandemic.
So it makes sense that sitting tall and committing to healthy office habits (like getting up every 60 minutes) can keep musculoskeletal pains at bay. And healthy behaviors can set you up for a more productive workday, too, says Alan Hedge, PhD, a professor in the department of design and environmental analysis and ergonomics researcher at Cornell University. Good posture improves oxygen intake and blood flow, which in turn keeps your energy levels and focus high. Having sufficient lighting can reduce hunching and eyestrain, which can translate into fewer (literal) headaches. (And all of this applies to kids who are remote learning too!)
You might not have to do a total overhaul to give your home office some ergonomic upgrades. "Start by adjusting what you already have," says Hedge, whether that's putting a laptop or monitor on a stack of books or ditching that yoga ball (sorry, they're not meant to be desk chairs) for a sturdier seat. "But if you can't adjust it, you'll want to replace it," Hedge says.
We take about 20,000 breaths per day. But have you ever thought about what's traveling up your nose and into your lungs during each one? "Because the average American spends nine hours inside for every hour spent outdoors, we wind up inhaling up to five times more potentially harmful particles when we're inside our homes versus outside," says Richard Corsi, PhD, an indoor air quality researcher and dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University. What's polluting the air? There are fumes from ovens (gas produces particulate matter and carbon dioxide while electric ovens can produce formaldehyde) and cleaning products, as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from furniture, carpet, and walls. And there are also particles coming from the outdoors: pollen, exhaust, and pesticides. Air pollutants can trigger symptoms like coughing and eye or nose irritation. They can also lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and even heart disease and cancer after prolonged or repeated exposures.
An easy way to clean up the air: Cracking a window, especially if you're cooking, can help remove or dilute indoor air pollutants. And no matter where you live, a quality HEPA purifier can clear the air. Just make sure it's the right size for your space (and skip anything that bills itself as an "ionizer"; these products produce ozone, which is actually another irritating pollutant).
What we eat matters, and being in control of what we put on our plates is empowering, says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor. "The food you choose impacts every part of your life—your energy levels, digestive health, sleep quality, immunity, and, of course, disease risk."
The easiest way to make sure you're getting all the vitamins and nutrients you need is to prepare your own meals as much as you can. "When you cook at home, you have so much more control over what goes into your food," says Marisa Moore, RDN, a licensed dietitian in Atlanta. "And research shows that when people dine in, they tend to eat fewer calories, eat more diverse foods, and can better choose the foods that fit their needs." Don't let the elaborate meal-prep setups on Instagram make you think healthy cooking is too complicated or that you don't have time. "It's really only as hard as you make it," says Moore, adding that just a few tools can set you up for dozens of different meals.
Our homes have definitely changed in the past decades. In both furniture and building materials, natural materials like wood, cotton, and stone are often replaced with petroleum-based products, including polyurethane foams and polyesters. While that's made some products cheaper, it's also introduced more chemicals into our homes that can make their way into our bodies, says Heather Stapleton, PhD, an environmental sciences professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. Research has found that some of the biggest offenders come from features that are meant to protect us or make life more convenient: Flame retardants in upholstered sofas and chairs may be carcinogenic; the stain-repellent properties of rugs or fabrics can have chemicals that are linked to thyroid disease or immune issues.
In January 2020, California enacted a ban on the use of many flame retardants in mattresses and upholstered furniture. Since lots of brands sell nationwide, they've adopted the same standards for all applicable furniture, not just what's California-bound. So the next time you shop for furniture or flooring, read the labels! Buy products certified by Global Organic Textile Standard, or GOTS (proving the textile is made from organic materials); Oeko-Tex (the textile is free of substances known to be harmful to human health); or GreenGuard (the product won't negatively impact air quality).
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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