The CDC Has a New Report Card to Judge If Your Office Is Keeping You Healthy

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It’s one of the simplest little health tricks: If you’re trying to sneak in a little extra exercise during the workday, take the stairs, not the elevator. You have to get from one floor to another no matter how you slice it — might as well burn a few more calories while you’re at it.

But whether you choose to follow this advice can depend as much on the building itself as it does on you. Maybe the staircase is wide, brightly lit, nicely finished; maybe there’s even some music playing as you climb the flights. Or maybe it’s dirty and narrow. Maybe it’s dim, or smells kind of weird.

Workplace health, in other words, is influenced in large part by the design of the workplace. And as Fast Company reported today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a new scoring system, called Fitwel, to help employers figure out if their spaces are set up in a way that promotes employee wellness. Is your office conducive to moving around? Does it provide easy access to healthy food and public transportation? Or is it a pit of sloth and misery and stale vending-machine Cheetos?

Fast Company explains:

The CDC and the GSA developed the scoring system over five years, consulting public health experts, designers, and more than 3,000 research studies. The questions cover 60 strategies that are proven to contribute to healthier offices, such as proximity to public transit, bike parking, indoor air quality, healthy food access, fitness facilities, and lobby and stairwell design. The algorithm that puts all these factors together weighs each by the strength of their evidence that they work, and their potential impact.

The point of the system is to try to take this theoretical science and translate it into action at a building level,” Liz York, the CDC’s chief sustainability officer, told Fast Company. “There’s a huge gap between the scientist who is looking at physical activity and data for sidewalks and sidewalk use, and the [person] who is responsible for the building and making decisions for its budget.”

The CDC, in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Active Design, is working with a small handful of buildings before Fitwel’s broader launch next year. In the meantime, it’s kind of nice to think that there’s a way to be healthier at work without, well, gathering with all of your co-workers to do healthy things — some researchers have challenged the effectiveness of workplace wellness programs, arguing that they can serve as a source of anxiety rather an incentive to live more healthily. And as Science of Us has previously noted, workplace happiness initiatives, with their mandatory fun and forced peppiness, can feel more like bullying than a real pick-me-up. But just existing in a building, if it’s the right one, may go a long way toward accomplishing what those programs aim to do.