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Designing for Health: Movement – The WELL v2 Standard

by Jon Young, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, Sustainability EIT II

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Do you ever wish that there was a simple, achievable action that would help prevent heart disease, cancer, dementia, and arthritis while also improving your focus, attention, mental health, sleep quality, pain management, and quality of life? If so, then I have good news for you! It does exist, and it is something you can do every day, physical activity.

Montrose Collective, Designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (Houston, Texas)

“Physical activity is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that require energy expenditure. Physical inactivity (lack of physical activity) has been identified as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality (6% of deaths globally). Moreover, physical inactivity is estimated to be the main cause of approximately 21–25% of breast and colon cancers, 27% of diabetes, and approximately 30% of ischemic heart disease burden.”

World Health OrganizationGlobal Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health

Your health is one of the biggest determinants of the quality and quantity of time you have on this earth, and physical activity is one of the major influences on your health. You might be thinking “that sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work,” but actually, when designed correctly, the built environment can set us up for success and encourage us to incorporate activity into our daily routines without even recognizing it.

Montgomery ISD – Lake Creek High School, Designed by Huckabee, Inc. (Montgomery, Texas)

Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment, Concept 5: Movement

Issue: Over time, the design of our homes, schools, workplaces, communities, jobs, and transportation have been made to require less movement and encourage sedentary activities. Physical inactivity and sedentary behavior are ever-increasing and leave us at risk for numerous health issues. It is possible to promote physical activity through building design by making active options more available and appealing.

Health Implications: Physical inactivity and sedentary behavior are linked to health outcomes including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular risks, depression, stroke, dementia, cancer, and premature mortality. If physical inactivity were reduced by just 10% worldwide, more than half a million deaths could be avoided, while over one million deaths could be avoided if physical inactivity were reduced by 25%.

Solution: Buildings can be designed to promote movement, foster physical activity, and discourage sedentary behavior by creating and enhancing physical activity opportunities through spaces where we live, learn, work, and play. For example, designing a building with visually appealing staircases close to the entrance, while placing elevators further back in a less-frequently trafficked area of the building will subconsciously encourage usage of the staircase, thus encouraging movement.

WELL v2 Standard’s Recommended Strategies:

  • Providing basic ergonomic support to building occupants through active furnishings, adjustable height monitors, seat flexibility, and ergonomics education
  • Promoting commuting options by providing bicycle storage, bicycle maintenance tools, and shower or changing rooms on-site
  • Locating staircases in spaces closer to the primary points of entry than any motorized options such as escalators or elevators and provide access from all floors
  • In hallways and staircases – Utilizing artwork, music, light levels, windows, gamification, or natural design elements to promote usage and physical activity in these areas
  • Placing signage that encourages stair use at point-of-decision locations such as at elevator banks, entry points of stairs, or junctions in corridors that lead to either a stairwell or elevator bank
  • Selecting sites with access to diverse surrounding amenities and uses as well as pedestrian and bike-friendly streets
  • Implementing no-cost physical activity opportunities for building occupants
  • Providing occupants with access to dedicated physical activity spaces and equipment at no cost
  • Leveraging site design elements such as plaza spaces, walking paths, artistic installations, or natural elements such as trees, planters, and landscape to encourage physical activity throughout the day
  • Providing self-monitoring tools with a subsidy or at no cost to occupants that can measure steps, active minutes, distance traveled, and floors climbed to allow individuals to monitor their own metrics over time


In modern times, it can often be easier to sit around all day at our desks, in our cars, or on our couches watching TV than it is to go to the gym. However, incorporating movement into our day doesn’t have to be something that requires great effort.

Through intelligent design techniques in the built environment, we can encourage physical activity by utilizing strategies such as increasing convenience and aesthetics of staircases, incorporating standing or walking desks in offices, making it more convenient to bicycle to work, providing options for walking to nearby restaurants or amenities, encouraging walking on-site, providing access to spaces designated for physical activity, or providing other incentives such as fitness tracking devices.

Increasing physical activity is not solely an individual’s problem, it is also a societal problem that is a result of the environments we have created for ourselves. Through the thoughtful, creative, and consistent efforts of designers of the built environment, we have the potential to significantly decrease the risk of diseases and increase the overall health and quality of life for ourselves, our families, and our community.

Hero image at top of page:
Conroe ISD – Grand Oaks High School | PBK Architects | Conroe, Texas

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