Well At Work with Dr. Esther Sternberg

January 9, 2024

In today’s episode we’d ike to introduce you to a trailblazer in the world of integrative medicine and well-being. The esteemed Dr. Sternberg, who not only directs research at UArizona’s renowned Weil Center but also founded its groundbreaking Wellbeing Institute. Today we will be diving into her new book ‘Well at Work.’ Where we will explore the many ways to do and stay well in the workplace.


Workplace wellness and resilience. 0:52
Stress, arthritis, and integrative health. 7:02
Measuring office space impact on employee well-being. 13:39
The impact of workspace design on physical and mental health. 20:23
Benefits of nature and green light for wellbeing. 26:07
The benefits of nature sounds and mindfulness meditation. 30:14
Nature, wellness, and immersive experiences in hospitals. 35:36
Bringing nature into workspaces and separating work from home. 40:10
Rituals, signaling, and workspace design. 46:38
Workplace wellness and Feng Shui with Dr. Esther Sternberg. 51:22

Natalie 00:00
Hello and welcome to the Invigor medical Podcast. I’m Natalie garland. I’m here with my lovely co host, Mr. Derek Berkey. Derek, how are you today?

Derek 00:07
I’m doing great good doing really good.

Natalie 00:09
It’s fun to see we’re back to our normal routine of interviewing other amazing professionals in this space. Last time we sat here we had a really fun one on one episode that I hope other people checked out. Yeah. But today I’m really excited because we’re joined by Dr. Esther Sternberg. Super excited to introduce Dr. Sternberg. She’s a trailblazer in the world of integrative medicine and well being. The esteemed Dr. Esther Sternberg, who not only directs research at University of Arizona is renowned Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, but also founded its groundbreaking Institute on place well being and performance. Today, we are going to discuss her new book well at work and learn how to improve our workspace. How are you today? Thank you for being here.

Dr. Sternberg 00:52
Thank you for having me. I’m doing great.

Natalie 00:55
Good! I appreciate the patience that you exhibited. While we tried to work out technical difficulties. And I’m glad that you’ve been had your own experiences enough in podcasting to recognize that sometimes it’s just the way it is. Our issue today was a new one we’ve never encountered. We got it worked out.

Dr. Sternberg 01:10
I liked I liked to say that, you know, there’s always technical difficulties, and you never know what they are. But since my field is stress, it’s always good to have a little example of something that stresses you before you have to talk

Natalie 01:22
Oh, perfect. Well, I maybe the universe was just saying, Well, this is well in line with what we’re discussing today. So here you go, everyone. Great. Okay, so I’m really excited to discuss your book while at work. And I wouldn’t, you know, we always start our episodes, trying to get a little background on our guest. And and I would love to hear your background a bit specifically, I know while at work is just one of many feathers in your cap and your career and all of your higher learning, and all the education and speaking that you do. And so I’d love for our listeners to get an idea of why well at work is a topic that they could and should be interested in and what they might gain from it. And I feel like we’ll understand that a bit as we understand you, and what you’ve studied and what you’ve learned and why you think this topic is something that the world should know about?

Dr. Sternberg 02:13
Well. It’s the book is well at work creating well being in any workspace. And that’s the crucial piece. You know, since COVID, everybody was became aware of how the indoor environment could transmit viral infections through the ventilation system. And the interest in healthy indoor environments really, exponentially piqued us hours after COVID during COVID. And certainly still, there’s a huge demand for healthy workplaces for healthy living spaces for healthy learning spaces. And the point that I make in the book and the important point to remember is that health is much more than what you’re exposed to. So whether you get a viral infection depends on the dose of the virus to which you’re exposed. The duration of exposure, but importantly, your own resilience, right? And that’s what I talked about in the book and how do you get to be resilient, you know, you can limit the amount of virus you’re exposed to through the ventilation system, you have frequent air turnover, fresh air, that’s why everybody was sitting outside eating in the cold during COVID place that’s diluting the virus filtration. And you’re everybody knows that what a MERV 13 filter is right and put it on. So that’s, that’s important masking distancing. But whether you get sick and how sick you get depends on your resilience, and how you enhance your resilience is through Integrative Health. And what I talked about in the book is the seven domains of integrative health, and that is sleep resilience, which is your stress and relaxation response. And I can talk about that a little more later. Movement relationships, the environment that includes the clean air that you breathe, but also the green environment, nature, spirituality and nutrition. And it’s very, very hard for us to actively engage in all those seven domains of healthy behaviors. And that’s why it’s important to design your environments where you work and live and play, to help you engage in those activities to enhance your resilience and be your healthiest you.

Natalie 04:50
Wow, that’s awesome. That’s something I’ve never really considered before you know, and I think about a home space or a workspace it’s usually you know, thinking about it being a star directly or visually pleasing. I’ve never really considered how it impacts my physical or mental or emotional well being.

Dr. Sternberg 05:08
I didn’t either. Wow, I didn’t either. I was studying stress that way back in 1989, when I was at the National Institutes of Health. In Bethesda, Maryland, I discovered that the Brain Stress center is important in susceptibility to autoimmune inflammatory disease in rats. And when you can prove that in rats, then the idea that the mind body connection is real, that stress can make you sick, that believing can make you well. All of that had become has a biomedical basis because back then, they, you know, neuroscientists, endocrinologist, physicians didn’t believe that something is flaky, a stress Frou Frou Frou Frou us belief could actually impact your health. But there’s a wealth of data now showing that certainly chronic stress, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to more frequent and more severe viral infections can impair your take rate of vaccine. How important is that now? Okay, slow. Yeah, slow wound healing, can speed cancer growth of certain kinds of cancers and can speed chromosomal aging? So if you’re, you know, if you’re chronically stressed, your chromosomes can look 17 years older than your biological age. That is not Yeah, that’s not..

Natalie 06:33
That is not a small number.

Dr. Sternberg 06:35
That’s not something I want to know.

Natalie 06:37
Well, and you mentioned just for a moment, you know, 1989, and this other place you were so let’s just take a minute and understand I want our listeners to understand your history. And I would love to have a better understanding as well, because it sounds like this is really fascinating research and your book, and I’m already a little bit like, wow, these are things I’ve never considered. So tell us about the path that led you here and why you were like this is a book that needs to be written.

Dr. Sternberg 07:02
Well, so as I said, I was studying the stress response and its role in inflammatory arthritis. And it back in well, two things happened, really something happened to me. And a colleague at another federal the NIH is a an agency of the federal government and another colleague from another federal agency asked me a question. So I’ll start with what happened to me. About nine years after I discovered that about the Brain Stress center and arthritis, I went through a period of extreme stress in my life, my mother was dying of cancer. I was a long distance caregiver, I was going through a lot of stress at work, testifying to Congress on a rather contentious issue, which, as you can imagine, is somewhat stressful. I can only imagine.

Derek 07:53
Yeah. Interacting with the government in any capacity can be stressful, no doubt.

Dr. Sternberg 07:58
Well it was worse because I was the target of the third largest petrochemical company in Japan. Oh my Oh, my goodness, oh, my god research, my research at NIH prove that they were guilty of causing an epidemic related to a food supplement. And they were being sued for about $2,000,000,000.99 dollars.

Natalie 08:21
I’m just gonna earmark you for another podcast. Further research because I’m like, I’m like taking notes. What else? Are we more questions, but let’s we can stay on topic for now. But that’s incredible.

Dr. Sternberg 08:31
Yeah, so So I was stressed. Let’s put it that on it mildly. Yeah. So um, and I developed inflammatory arthritis. Wow. You know, you’ve been striking. I’m an arthritis Doc. I’m a rheumatologist. That’s my clinical training. And so it was ironic that I developed the disease that I was studying when I went through this period of chronic stress. So I was I had gotten knee biopsies, I was supposed to go into hospital to get an experimental drug and more knee biopsies and liver biopsy and, and my mother died. And I just had it with hospitals. And I said, Hey, that’s enough of hospital. And I moved into a new house, which by the way, moving into a new house is another one of the top 10 Stressful moving. So I was in this new house in Washington DC and my neighbors who were Greek saw me riding on my deck on my computer what was to become my my first book, which was about the science of the mind, body connection, the balance within and they came to the door and they rang the doorbell and they brought me wonderful Greek food, said Sikhi don’t mind is Musa calm, which was very familiar to me, because my parents were from Romania. And that was the kind of food that they cooked. And they saw me writing and they said, Are you a writer? And I said, Well, I don’t know. I think of myself as a writer. And they said, I said, Why did you ask? And they said, Oh, because we’ve always wanted a writer to stay at our cottage and Crete.

Derek 10:08
Like, seriously, like, how do you land such a perfect gig? Like, that’s amazing. They bring you Greek food. Yes, you’re making me hungry. And then you’re like, and then they like, look, come stay at my cottage in Greece, I’m like, Oh, my God. Jackpot.

Natalie 10:23
I was just trying to be humble. I am a writer, I just didn’t want to..

Dr. Sternberg 10:28
I said, That’s what I said. I said, I’m a writer. And so I went with them. And I was there only about 10 days or two weeks. But what I didn’t realize, well, I had an aha moment when I was there, because I started to feel so much better. And I was swimming in the ocean. Every day, I was eating a healthy Mediterranean diet, I was surrounded by friends, family, all these grandmothers who shared their, you know, arthritis stories with me and fed me this wonderful Mediterranean diet. I’d climb to the top of the hill above the village, where there was the ruins of a temple to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Oh, wow. And on top of the ruins, there was a tiny little Greek chapel with the candles and the icons. And I’d sit there for hours listening to the birds and the sheep and the goats and looking at the blue, blue Mediterranean and the fuchsia bougainvillea against the white stucco buildings. And time would pass, and I didn’t realize it, and I didn’t know that I was meditating. And so, so I, what I realized afterwards, when I came home, and I felt so much better. And by the way, I saw my doctor. And in the in the medical notes, he wrote, well, she doesn’t need to come back in the hospital, she doesn’t need this experimental drug, she’s so much better. Wow, what did you do? And what I did was I was engaging in all seven domains of integrative health, I was sleeping well, at night, even under the stars sometimes. So that was sleep, my stress was reduced. So that was resilience. I was surrounded by this beautiful, natural environment, surrounded by by support, you know, by my friends and the community around. And that was there, this element of spirituality in the in the meditation piece, and the healthy nutrition. So it was really because I was engaging in those seven domains of integrative health, that I started to feel better. And what I realized is if I continued to engage in those activities, then I would continue to feel better. And if I went back to my sedentary ways, eating french fries and hamburgers for lunch every morning, every morning..

Natalie 12:59
Some days, you know, we’ve all been there.

Dr. Sternberg 13:02
Yeah. But you know that I would continue to be sick. And then when you break that down, the question is, what was it about the physical environment in which I was living for that short period of time that helped me heal? And could I bring that back to my home, in Washington. And so I consciously began at that time to incorporate elements of my physical environment that would encourage me to take meditation breaks, to exercise more, you know, to certainly eat a healthy diet and so on. So I said, there were two things that that brought me to this well at work or well being spaces. And the second one was in the year 2000, the then director of research for the US General Services Administration, which is the agency of the federal government, that builds and operates and maintains all non military federal buildings in the United States and around the world, all your libraries, your courthouses, your, your embassies, and Kevin CAPTCHA was director of research at the time. And he asked me as coming from a sister agency, the National Institutes of Health, whether I could help him measure the impact of the built spaces, the built workspaces for the over a million office workers, civilian office workers, over 374 million square feet of office space that he oversaw. And is there a way to be sure that those spaces keep people in them happy, healthy, and of course, productive? Well, in the year 2000, that was something that most people were not thinking about. Yeah, for sure. And right and, and at that time, most people did studies to see the impact of the of office spaces or buildings using surveys, basically cleaver was standard procedure. And we use wearable devices. Kevin CAPTCHA was director of research for the US General Services Administration, which is the agency of the federal government that builds and operates all non military, federal buildings, your courthouses, your libraries, your embassies around the world, and so on. And Kevin knew I was studying stress at the National Institutes of Health, a sister agency, and he asked me if, if I could help him to measure the impacts of the over 370 million square feet of office space that he oversaw. For the over 1 million office workers felt in the civilian office to small ask.

Natalie 15:44
Can you help with just this one little thing for me?

Dr. Sternberg 15:48
Well, we weren’t gonna measure all of them. But he wanted to know he wanted a quantitative way to measure the impact of these spaces. So he could design and operate spaces to keep people in them happy, healthy and productive. I love that. And up until then, most ways that architects and design professionals would measure the impacts of their space on people was with surveys. And what we did is we use wearable devices to measure the impact of the office spaces first on about 70 office workers in a in a building in Denver that was being retrofitted. And those days, you know, I’m wearing this ring here, I’m sure you’re probably wearing some..

Natalie 16:35
Kind of device that’s reading something that’s going on inside of your body. And my watch that’s tracking my steps. Yeah, exactly.

Dr. Sternberg 16:41
Well, in those days, the the wearable device for heart rate variability, which is the stress response, and also your posture, and was about this size, wow. Yes, I waterglass for those people who are listening, and they had wires that attached to your chest, and were glued onto your chest and and so we had the office workers were these things for two and a half days. And we tried them beforehand to make sure. To arduous but I can tell you two and a half days is about as much as you can handle. Yeah. But and and what we found, and this was I was really surprised. I and I, in retrospect, don’t know why I was surprised. But we found that the people in the old office space in the legacy space before it was retrofitted, which had six foot high wall cubicles. It was dark, no views to the outside. It was musty. There was high mechanical noise, poor airflow. Those people were significantly more stressed than the people in the light and airy space that had good airflow and beautiful views and sunny morning light and open office design and the stress response. And when I say stress, they didn’t know they were stressed when we asked them Were you stressed they didn’t they were not aware of it. But their physiological stress response was their heart rate, their heart rate variability, and was significantly higher in the old space than in the new space. And it carried through to when they were asleep at night. Wow. Wow. So you really do bring your office space home with you home in more ways than you think you do. Exactly. And so when I when I left the National Institutes of Health and I came to the Andrew Wiles Center for Integrative medicine to create a research program here in Tucson. I continued the work with Kevin CAPTCHA with the GSA and we established a study called well built for well being where we use state of the art wearable devices now they’re, you know, tiny little things that are stuck to your chest and we could measure the stress response, the stress and relaxation response, physical activity, posture, sleep quality, based on all of this, and we connected it to how they felt subjectively in terms of mood or psychological responses. And we that study was called well built for well being. And we continue to mine the data but what it is doing is giving Kevin and the GSA a prescription for a healthy well being workspace and the great thing about it is that Kevin CAPTCHA is now director of high performance federal green buildings for the GSA chief White House. That’s awesome. Wait a minute gets better. Chief White House Sustainability Officer for the GSA and he is able to implement all of these findings into the design and operation of federal office spaces. Wow. And it has become especially important Post COVID for informing post COVID reentry. Yeah, so. So really, we’ve provided that prescription in a very granular way of the elements of the space, the light, the sound, the design, the layout, which can enhance well being or if you don’t pay attention, which can stress and impair.

Derek 20:22
Well yeah, you know, what I think is interesting. So I was listening to your book, shortly, you know, this this previous week to prepare for this podcast. Thank you. Of course, yeah, it’s really it’s really well written. And I’ve been been enjoying it so far. But I was, when I was listening to the introduction, I know that you really talked a lot about the impact of the COVID epidemic on all these things. You talked about the 2008, you told that story about the conference with all those architects and but the one thing that really stuck out to me was back in, you know, the early 1900s When the polio epidemic was a thing, and people would go to these resorts or what were they called? I’m trying to remember off the top of my head.

Dr. Sternberg 21:05
Oh, you’re talking about tuberculosis sanatorium?

Derek 21:08
Yes. Yes and you know, that there’s a ton of benefits that came from that. But that essentially, at a certain point that kind of went away when the vaccines were created, and it’s like, well, now we have the cure. And honestly, when I heard that, I thought it was so indicative of just like, how we are as a society, where it’s like, Hey, here’s this, this overall holistic way that you can treat this is actually going to make you feel better overall. But people are like, yeah, yeah, whatever. I just want to get better right now. And we got to fail or shots. Yeah, exactly. And so I just thought that that was, though, so fascinating, but I kind of wanted to ask, Why do you think it is that? And maybe this is this is a commentary on society? But like, Why do you think it is that we lean so much more into, like, Oh, let me let me take this pill, but let me take the shot, rather than focusing on our work on our physical spaces that we exist in.

Dr. Sternberg 21:57
It’s easier. Right? Yeah. I mean, we’re a society that demands immediate response, you know, fast food fast. You know, look at the television shows, you know, people have a very short attention span. And, you know, I’m not an expert in that area. But I think that that’s what it is. And I think it’s different in Europe. You know, in Europe, a doctor, especially in Germany, I believe, can prescribe a stay at a spa for back pain.

Derek 22:29
We need that here. Yeah. And the other thing that I thought was really cool from the introduction and made me think is like now I want to go say to my Adirondack chair, is that the that essentially polio? It was a polio know what it was? It was tuberculosis, tuberculosis, that’s what it was that tuberculosis, essentially the origin of the Adirondack chair, and I’m like, I’m gonna go sit in my under Adirondack chair now.

Dr. Sternberg 22:52
Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because the story that I tell there is actually Gary Troodos great grandfather. That cartoon is Gary Trudeau, his great grandfather had tuberculosis and moved to Saranac Lake to the Adirondacks to for a cure at you know, and that was a very typical European thing. There are lot of Davos, Switzerland was a famous tuberculosis sanatorium, that’s what people did, they went high up in the mountains, to get the fresh air, the sunlight, you know, and a rest. And that’s all that could be done for tuberculosis. And yes, so So Gary Troodos great grandfather started a tuberculosis sanatorium in, in Saranac Lake and, and then when, when, with the advent of the drugs for tuberculosis, and, and the cures, again, that fell to the wayside now, the The Institute is a research institute there instead of a sanatorium. But, but I think it has to do with our western medicine desire to take a pill or get a shot or something. And it’s a lot easier to do that than to engage in the seven domains of integrative health. You know, we all in January 1, we’re all gung ho we’re gonna go to the gym, we’re going to get in the exercise regime, we’re going to stop eating these sweet heavy foods and, and then by February or March, that all falls by the wayside. But that’s why I’m really the thesis of the book is to design your spaces where you work primarily, but it can apply to where you live and learn to enhance and encourage your ability to to engage in these activities without even realizing that you’re doing it. And it can be done it there. There are certainly ways so we could talk about sleep. Yeah, you know, sleep for example. Now, what you do during the day, really impacts how Well, or how not well you sleep at night. So exposure to full spectrum sunlight from 8am to 12. Noon is really important for a good night’s sleep. The more what we found in our studies with the GSA is that the more people move during the day, the less stress they were after work, and the better they slept at night. So so those are simple things to do. And if you’re if you’re working in a space that prevents you from moving around, where it’s, there are barriers where the staircases are dark and unpleasant. You know, where you’re cooped up in a little cubicle, or even in a private office, you’re likely to move less during the day. And then you’re going to be more stressed, we found that people who moved more during the day, were 14%, less stressed at night, physiologically stressed. And when you add that up, day in day out 14% Every single day is the difference. Yeah, that’s difference. And those people slept better at night and, and enhance their health.

Derek 26:07
I think it’s so funny that you bring up sunlight and movement, because this is a common thing among our podcasts. And a lot of people who brought on to the podcast, it’s it’s, it’s this common theme of if you want to make your life better, go out on a walk, get some get some sunlight in your eyes and get some movement and it’s crazy. Yeah, it’s it’s, it’s so simple. But it’s like it’s going back to kind of like what we’re talking about. It’s sometimes it’s just the simplest things that can make the largest difference. And really, it’s, you know, if you do it just one day, it might not make that big of a difference. But like, it’s the consistency of doing it over and over and making it a habit that all of a sudden, you’re building this new life and you’re you’re experiencing so much more well being because of it. So I think it’s a fantastic point to bring out.

Dr. Sternberg 26:51
It’s true and also going out and walking in nature. And I talked about this in the book and the environment chapter that being in nature, looking at nature is is very important for wellbeing. And there are many elements of being in a natural green forest environment, for example, that confer that sense of well being it besides walking slowly and breathing deeply, which is kind of like a walking meditation. But there’s also the green light, it turns out that green light, reduces pain. There’s a professor at the University of Arizona, Mohawk Abraham, who, who’s discovered this and looking at a you know, you can look at a LED green light. And it turns out that that will reduce pain

Derek 27:40
That’s incredible. So I do have a question. So this is anyone that’s watched, the show knows that I’m a massive fan here. This is the segment of the show. This is the segment of the show. Everyone that’s watched this show knows that I’m a huge fan of Andrew Huberman. Recently, he had a real where he’s talking about studies about nature. And that, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this, but like that, it’s so hard to conduct a proper experiment about the benefits of nature, because there are so many confounding variables, right? Where it’s like, okay, you know, we’re gonna see if the negative ions that come from this waterfall are the thing that actually make you better, but then, you know, it’s like, alright, well, how do we actually make this experiment, we’re gonna put these people in a room, and we’re going to release negative ions and and, you know, do XY and Z. And it’s like, at that point, you lose so many of these other beneficial elements that are in nature, that it’s like, how do you how do you really like make that done? So but that being said, it’s really cool to see that they were able to get it down to like this very narrow thing with like green light. Essentially, the green light can reduce reduce pain.

Dr. Sternberg 28:44
There are two kinds of questions to ask in, in medical research. Yeah. One is whether something has a benefit, and the other is how does it work? And asking whether something has a benefit, you put people in nature and you see, you know, how they are we did a study when I was at NIH are actually continuing with the Walter Reed, National Military Medical Center in Bethesda that used to be the Navy hospital. And it’s, it’s a military base, and it’s a large, like a small town, basically. And there is a branch of the Rock Creek and a Forest Glen that runs through it. And we worked with architects, designers, the Navy to retrofit this Forest Glen so that the wounded warriors could walk from where they were living the Fisher houses through the forest instead of a long urban path, which was very noisy and lots of trucks and stuff. And, and there’s no question that walking in the forest Glen, reduce their stress subjectively and also objectively Yeah, as compared to the urban path. So that’s, that’s not asking. How did the forskolin improve their reduce their stress. It’s just saying it did it. Yeah. Then if you want to ask the question, what were the elements that did it? That gets harder because of what you just said?

Derek 30:11
There’s hundreds of elements that could be Yeah, right. Right.

Dr. Sternberg 30:14
But you know, the other elements that are present in the forest are volatile organic compounds. So you know, before rain, you can smell that wonderful. Fragrance HaCha Corp.

Derek 30:27
I think that’s the word.

Dr. Sternberg 30:29
That’s the word I do. Yeah. And in in Tucson, when I first came here and the monsoon season, I said, What is that sweet smell. And it’s the desert has its own, the desert has its own fragrance, the wonderful. It’s a wonderful thing. And, and it turns out that the, the compounds, there are hundreds and hundreds of these compounds in in the air just before rain, because they dissolve from the plants in the water and they get volatilize they get vaporized. And they’re the same set of compounds in the Korean and Japanese forests, as in the desert in Tucson. In in Japan and Korea, there’s a treated tradition called forest bathing, which doesn’t mean you’re taking a bath in the forest, it means you’re taking a walk and slowly inhaling and breathing deeply and being present. And in probably the fact that there are these organic compounds that we know have beneficial effects on mood on inflammation and on stress is helping you to feel better as well. So you have the light, you also have the sounds you have the birds chirping and nature sounds which are calming and can help you sleep.

Natalie 31:49
Yeah, I remember when I heard some research just earlier this year about just the effect of listening listening to birdsong and how it could boost your mood up to eight hours. And up until that time, as soon as there was warm weather, I’d always be on my back patio to start my morning. It was my it’s one of my favorite spaces. Still, it’s talking about the version of Adirondack Adirondack chair, my version of that is my hammock chair, with the Wheatfield behind me and the you know, view to the west. But anyway, it blew my mind because I didn’t realize I really did enjoy so much the bird song in the morning. And there’s always like been this Hawk that has always nested in these trees every single year. And there’s two of them, and I can even hear the babies once they’ve had. And I just assumed I was just being outside which likely was part of it. You know, it’s the sunshine it’s the other things but it never even occurred to me that just the birdsong was having such a big impact. Yeah. Feeling.

Dr. Sternberg 32:41
I’m gonna tell you a little story here that I tell in this book. And also in my previous book, in healing spaces, I would sit just like you described on the on, you know, have breakfasts on the On your terrace. When I was a child, my father used to love to have breakfast on the terrace in Montreal, we were in Montreal, and when when, of course, when not during the winter, but when it was the weather was was fine. Every morning, we would sit and have he’d have his coffee, and I’d be getting ready for school and having breakfast. And this was 10 years after World War Two, and he had been in a concentration camp and Russia and World War Two. And, and, and he would tell me, you know, he’d stopped and he’d look up. And I remember the look on his face. And he’d say, listen, listen to the sounds of peace. And I didn’t know what he was talking about. I heard a dog barking I heard that.

Natalie 33:46
I’m like tearing up a little bit, actually. Yeah.

Dr. Sternberg 33:50
And you know, I’d hear the tennis balls on the tennis courts across the street. And I didn’t know what he was talking about. And I didn’t know at that time that he had been in a concentration camp, we we discovered that only after he died. And and then I understood he was so valuing the sounds of peace, that to me, were just background noise. And in fact, it was he really taught me to pay attention to those things. And in and that is mindfulness meditation. It really is. And it can set you and I talked about this in the chapter on spirituality in the book, that it sets your tone of your stress and relaxation response from the beginning of the day. You know, you don’t want to start the day stressed because then you’re gonna only get more stressed in reactive mode. Right. So so it it settles you it’s centers you. I tell the story also in the book of a colleague, Dr. Rocky Crocker, who’s a physician at the center, and he his grandmother was Choctaw. And he describes the ritual the ceremony of gratitude that he starts the day with, which is a Choctaw, well, Native American tradition of you stand quietly, and you look to the east and the west and the north and the south and you, you feel gratitude for everything around you. And gratitude is a really important piece of this sense of spirituality, which can be brought into the workplace without it having a religious connotation.

Natalie 35:36
Yeah absolutely. Well, I do have a question for you, you know, kind of going back to your book. But first, I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing that story of your father, I just felt so yeah, I’m like emotional, but I felt so moved by it. And what a beautiful reminder, presents, and so much, you know, to know that you were unaware of that, until after his death, and to be able to look back and hold that memory with the awareness of what he’d been through and how he was able to be there with you and to draw you into the moment, and how impactful that must have been for your life. So I just wanted to have show sake, gratitude. Thank you for sharing that story. That was that was very moving. Yeah. So switching back gears, like a get myself together here. But I love how much we’re talking about nature and being in nature and all of these things. And so let’s bring it back to the concept of the book. And we’re, you know, talking about well at work. So obviously, most of us don’t have the ability to work in nature. Many of us don’t. So would that be oh my gosh, I’m setting me up for that job. Like, can I just go get a job leading people on hikes or something and sit on a patio somewhere and just tell people to look at the scenery, just dream job, amazing. But you know, and many people aren’t even lucky enough to be able to be in a workspace that even has windows. So how do we, in a practical way, bring this idea into our everyday lives and into our workspaces to begin working on the seven pillars of health?

Dr. Sternberg 37:03
Well I’m going to tell you another story.

Natalie 37:05
I love story time. Story time with Dr. Sternberg is my favorite.

Derek 37:09
That’s great.

Dr. Sternberg 37:12
When when I was writing the book, it was already in galley form. And, you know, once the book is in galleys, you really can’t add anything to it without changing the pages and whatnot. But I was invited to see a space at the hospital in Tucson, called a recharge room. And it’s an immersive nature experience. Amazing. Well, and but the story behind it is really amazing. So the young woman who started the studio elsewhere, she calls it studio elsewhere, was in the video game industry and, and then had an accident and had severe neuro trauma and was in and out of hospitals, and was desperate to be in nature and couldn’t be in nature. And so in 2019, after she got better, she decided to quit the video game industry and create a studio in New York City to create these immersive nature experiences. And, and then 2020 happened. And she quickly ramped up to, to get these recharge rooms, these immersive nature spaces, first into Mount Sinai Hospital in New in New York City. And now she has them in 60 hospitals around the country with over a million users. And what it is is is you walk into this room, which is darkened and it has some plants around and a couple of a few comfortable chairs all facing one wall. And there’s a lot of different nature scenes projected on the wall that you can you call out and you say, elsewhere, take me to a quiet mountain lake. And all of a sudden the whole wall becomes this quiet mountain lake and you see the water lapping and you hear the lapping and you hear the birds and you and in some cases she has music. And the amazing thing that she’s done is she’s also measuring the impact of these spaces on people’s stress response on their anxiety on their sleep quality on their burnout. And she’s finding that simply 10 minutes a day of acts of immersion in these spaces can reduce all of those things reduce stress, reduce anxiety, reduce burnout, and morale Phillips this her name and it’s really quite remarkable. It’s sort of like Disneyland, right? You go into these, but it but it is a space where people can go to to overcome the extreme stresses of the day and she she really made them accessible not Not only for the doctors and physicians and the patients, but everybody in the hospital staff, from the facilities, people from the cleaning staff, and so on all the way up. And it also creates a sense of community. So yes, there are ways to bring nature in, even if you can’t go out into nature.

Natalie 40:19
In a practical way for someone listening, maybe who now works at home after COVID. Because obviously, so many people’s jobs changed and vn working from home. And so this is kind of a two parter question. How can someone at home, try to bring nature into their workspace? And then also, how can someone who’s working at home, keep a line from working at home, you know, it’s home, but it’s also work. Because I know, that’s something that a lot of people, I have the ability to work from home when needed. And that’s something that I struggle with, too. And there was a time where I was self employed, and I was working from home all the time. And it and it was difficult in some ways, because I always felt like I could be working. If I was there, then maybe I should if I could be the maybe I should be, you know. So that’s a two parter. How can we bring it nature into our workspaces at home? And then how are we how, what’s the best way to separate work from home? And also, how important is it that we do that?

Dr. Sternberg 41:18
Okay, so I’m going to start with your first question, okay, because we were talking about nature before, certainly you can bring bits of nature in. So you know, when I came back from Greece, I purposefully put pots on my deck of herbs and Jasmine, because it reminded me of the fresh smell of oranges and citrus. And so you can you can put plants around, if you don’t have the ability to go outside if you’re if you live in a space where you don’t have a balcony. That speaks to also the importance of thinking not only about the individual room where you’re working in or the space, but more of the urban planning level. Why? Why these small parks or small green spaces are so important. If your organization where you work has the luxury to have space around it but can be landscape that’s really important at the new Andrew Wiles Center for Integrative Medicine we’re going to have we have a new building, that’s, that’s almost done. And we’re going to have landscape desert gardens where people can walk outside. But there’s a lot of attention now in in cities to putting in micro parks, I describe an organization called nature’s sacred that builds healing sacred gardens in underserved areas and areas devastated by by, you know, tornadoes, and floods and so on. And those spaces are really important for people to be able to get up and go and walk to, and you get the benefit of walking, and you get the benefit of being in nature. You know, you can certainly have pictures of nature. But again, if you have just one element, looking at a view, that’s right, that turns on a part of your brain that’s rich in endorphins, I did this I did a PBS television special where I was the guinea pig and I was in a brain scanner and when I was looking at views of nature that part of my brain turned on and it was really cool. Yeah, I bet but but of course it’s better to have all of the elements the sounds the you can download sounds of nature, from the internet that helps you sleep it helps you be calm so you can you can you know there’s aromatherapy you can have the fragrances of nature and and all that together can can help you center you and in some ways supplement not being able to be in nature. Your second question was how do we separate work from home?

Natalie 43:58
And how important is it to do so?

Dr. Sternberg 44:00
It’s really it’s really really important. And you know, I again there there has to be some intentionality here at the end of the day. So I live in Tucson Arizona I have the luxury to be able to swim every day.

Derek 44:16
I mean you can swim here in the Tri Cities every day I mean in the winter like it might be a little bit cold but..

Natalie 44:25
Hey I do my plunges in the river.

Derek 44:27
That’s what I do as well yeah, that’s what you’re gonna have to do that at some point.

Natalie 44:33
Back to the doctor.

Dr. Sternberg 44:35
Yeah, well I I’m not gonna advocate for cold plunges right now. It’s 101 degrees outside so Wow. Yeah. So, but you can do things I would I also cook I like to cook and you know, I prepare dinner that’s so so you can you can create these temporary breaks in what you’re doing and, and, and really stick to it. It’s hard, you know, men to not go back to the computer after dinner. And you know, that’s not a good thing but but you can have temporal breaks and also physical barriers. So if you work in a corner of your bedroom, for example, if if you don’t have a physical barrier to separate that workspace from your sleeping relaxing space, then your brain gets kind of confused when you go into the bedroom, because it doesn’t know whether you’re supposed to be working or sleeping. And, and that’s an important piece of sleep. It’s called sleep hygiene. You know, the only thing you should be doing in your bed is sleeping, you can have sex, but you shouldn’t be reading an exciting book or watching a scary movie, and you certainly shouldn’t be working in your you know, think about a cat hoops, you have to take the cat or the dog to the vet, they know when you’re putting them on that. That’s true. Barry Boggs Yeah, they’ve associated that space with the stuff that’s going to happen to them the thing they don’t want to do, right, so next lecture, right? You don’t want your brain to associate your bed or your bedroom with with work. So you can put up they all kinds of barriers on the internet that you can, you can find that it’s sort of get a break to the to that space.

Natalie 46:38
Well, I’m wondering, as you’re talking and thinking about, you know, for people that work at home, and how to create kind of that break at the end of the workday, it made me start thinking about, I was listening to another podcast this year that was talking about relationship with drinking, and like, you know, we because we’re seeing a lot more of like a sobriety movement, I think at least I’m witnessing this. And being mindful of that. And so anyway, it was an interesting conversation around like, people wondering like, Am I an alcoholic? Or, you know, what are my triggers, et cetera. And I love the way this woman described it when she was talking to the host. Because the host was saying, you know, I get home from work. And I, you know, want to, I want to make a gin and tonic, that’s just what I do. And so I’m wondering is, you know, I have to have this gin and tonic every day. And by walking, walking me through it, the guest was saying, you know, what I’m saying is that, that is not about the alcohol or the bus for you. It’s about the signal. And when you pour that drink, you’re not working anymore, and it’s time to unwind and relax. And for me, it was like lightbulb, because that is exactly what it is for me. And so I was able to substitute because I was just trying to cut back in general, for my health, I’m not on a sober journey, but I’m sober ish is what I would say. And so for me to get some mocktails, that included adaptogens and nootropics. And we’re very low in sugars and had organic ingredients. And so when I got home, instead, I would open one of those poured over big rock of ice in my class and go out to my patio, which is also a part of my unwind. But I would also sometimes work on my patio. So that didn’t work. So really, the drink in my hand was really the signal. And I was able to go out and do that. So I wondered if you could speak to that and maybe suggest, because I’m wondering if it’s just as simple as you know, a silly little thing you do like, oh, and I, you know, I’m done with work, do a wall set for 60 seconds. And that’s my brains trigger. I mean, it can it can it be anything, or does it need to be something specific?

Dr. Sternberg 48:33
Well, you know, I talked in the book in the spirituality chapter, I talked about rituals. And these are rituals. Yeah. And rituals can certainly calm and you can make up any ritual. There was a study that I described in the book where the researchers made up a ritual that was sort of meaningless and had people were do the ritual. The movement was kind of a movement ritual before a math test, and the people who did the ritual did better on the math test. Yeah. And so you can make up whatever ritual you want. And you know it what you said reminded me of something my own doctor told me in the opposite direction that I was drinking a lot of tea in the morning. I drink green tea, and I was having a whole pot and I was drinking it through noon, and I wasn’t sleeping well. And she said one cup of tea and I said Oh my How am I going to do only one cup of tea. This is terrible. So I I kept down to I have to say, I hope my doctor isn’t listening to one and a half cups.

Natalie 49:37
That’s progress that’s in the right direction. Yeah.

Dr. Sternberg 49:40
And then I switched to hot water in the same cup. And and I can drink that hot water through, you know, noon. 1pm 2pm. And it’s it. It’s the same as what you describe. You just it’s the ritual. Yeah, that that helps either keep you alert or are in your case sort of calm you? Yeah.

Natalie 50:03
Yeah. Wow. That’s crazy. I I’m going to be honest, this this whole conversation has I’m not even sure what I expected, but it’s just gone well beyond whatever expectations I had. And I feel like I could just go down so many rabbit holes.

Derek 50:17
Well like, okay, so I know we’re probably going to be wrapping up here.

Natalie 50:21
Yeah that’s what I’m thinking. I’m like, what else do we want to make sure we get him before we wrap up?

Derek 50:24
I did I did have one question because like when you hear about, you know, workspace and modifying the environments that you’re in, one of the things that popped into my mind was the concept of Fung Shui. You know, it’s like this. It’s this very kind of ancient tradition. And actually, there’s this one guy on YouTube that I watch, he does like these 32nd clips where he’s like, basically takes the layout of the room. And he’s like, don’t do it like this. Do it like this. I’m like, Oh, why does that make so much sense? Like, there’s all these things it just like, he just does it real quick. And he’s like, Yeah, that’s amazing. But like, what’s your what’s your take on Fung Shui?

Dr. Sternberg 50:57
Well, so I’ll tell you that my previous book healing spaces was translated into Chinese and the title of the book is Fung Shui.

Natalie 51:04
Oh wow. That’s cool.

Dr. Sternberg 51:08
So and I do talk about it in that book, not in this book.

Derek 51:12
But sorry, what is the literal transit meaning of Fung Shui? Is it? Is it like a healings because? Wow, it’s incredible. Yeah, that’s crazy.

Dr. Sternberg 51:21
Um, you know, and some of the elements of Feng Shui really fit with the neurobiology of, of designing space for wellness. And, you know, in the studies with the with the GSA, we found that the layout of the office space did really make a difference. People in open office design were, as I said, more active, they were 32% more active than people in private offices. 20% more active than people in cubicles. The people who were more active during the day were 14%, less stressed at night, and they slept better at night, and they were less fatigued the next day. So layout really is important. Now, layout, people hate open offices. But when we talk about that, we talked about active office design, really having lots of choices, many, many choices for people to go to depending upon whether they’re gathering with a small group, a large group, whether they want to have heads down work alone, whether they and also personality plays a role. We our most recent paper, we analyzed personality and people who are more extroverted prefer to be working in a little bit noisier environment with lots of stuff going on, you know, look at all the people in the coffee shops when there’s like a low buzz. Yeah, yeah. And and people who are a little more introverted, are more focused and prefer being in a quieter space. So you have to have lots of choices. And I don’t think that specifically speaks to your question about Feng Shui, but But there’s no question that layout of a space has it has a huge impact. Yes, definitely.

Natalie 53:01
I love that. Very cool. Well, I would love to ask you one final question. And if there’s just one thing that you could leave our listeners with one thought, or, or something to be mindful of whatever it may be, what would it be?

Dr. Sternberg 53:16
Well, can I say two thoughts.

Natalie 53:19
We won’t limit you.

Dr. Sternberg 53:21
Well, to remember that health is far more than fixing the ventilation, its well being is emotional well being and physical health are so important for your resilience. And you really can make a difference by these small changes, or even big changes in the environments where you work and live and play. And, and the other thing I wanted to mention is that we live in such scary times, in such horrible stuff going on in the world. And sometimes we can feel helpless and stressed and angry and anxious. Unfortunately, there’s not much that most of us can do about all that bad stuff going on in the world, but we can do something to fix or to change our environment so that we and our loved ones are healthier and and have a well being space to be in and and to support each other in this really scary times. So I think that’s the thought I want to leave people with.

Natalie 54:33
I’m glad we allowed you to do two. Yeah.

Derek 54:36
I think they’re both fantastic. Dr. Sternberg, thank you so much for joining us on our on this episode. It’s been very insightful. I believe for both of us. I think we had some amazing moments. Where can people learn more about you and your book? Well at work.

Dr. Sternberg 54:51
They can go to my website, www dot Esther sternberg.com That’s es T H e r, s t e r n be r g.com. And they can purchase the book well at work creating well being in any workspace on any, any platform what you can access online or in your local bookstore. And it’s been really a pleasure. It’s been great fun having this talk with you.

Natalie 55:18
I’m so glad and we’ll be sure to link everything in the show notes for everyone and where to find Dr. Sternberg. And hopefully you’ll see Dr. Steinberg in another episode with us because I have all kinds of future credible. Yeah, okay. It’s a pleasure. Thanks so much.

Podcast Guests

Esther Sternberg

Podcast Guests

Natalie Garland
Derek Berkey
5226 Outlet Dr, Paso, WA 99301
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