What sport can learn from commercial real estate to promote athlete health

What sport can learn from commercial real estate to promote athlete health

Technologies related to human wellbeing are standard in many office buildings, but largely unexplored in sports venues, says Kristen Fulmer

We spend 90% of our time indoors. That’s according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, which uses that statistic to demonstrate the importance of indoor environmental quality and its effect on human health.

Designers, owners and operators have identified strategies to negate what is known as ‘sick building syndrome’ to positively impact indoor air quality, as well as a number of other related issues, such as light, thermal and acoustic qualities.

Thanks to building standards like LEED, WELL and Fitwel, components related to good human health and wellbeing are often integrated into commercial building environments where a lot of people work. Access to natural light, acoustic comfort, wellness rooms, access to filtered drinking water and nutritious food options, flexible working spaces and opportunities for active work are not uncommon modern requirements.

Emerging technologies that facilitate these requirements help to create a better-performing organisation, with measurable boosts in mental productivity and physical wellbeing. Because of this, most future commercial real estate developments will deliver these features as the ‘new normal’.

A Seppänen and Fisk study from 2006 found that work performance may decrease by 1% for every one degree Celsius deviation from the optimal indoor temperature, and that poor air quality not only has an effect on work performance, but an increase in air quality is estimated to reduce the prevalence of sick leave by roughly 10%.

These findings about the built environment are applicable to all sectors – and sport is no exception.


Athletes have become hyper-aware of each calorie and micronutrient consumed, every heart beat per minute, and are desperate for any measures that can boost mental and physical performance while reducing stress and recovery time.

They have access to some of the premier technologies and best trainers, however, the power and influence of the built environment on athlete health and performance is largely unexplored in the sports industry.

While commercial office tenants demand a list of building-integrated strategies to reduce sick days and increase productivity, sports organisations are still largely focused on human-centric factors for change.

A lost day or distracted practice, arguably, can be dramatically more impactful to an athletic organisation than to a business in an office environment. In commercial real estate, the design methods around air quality, natural light and acoustics are now an obligation of the building owner. It’s time the sports industry catches up.

Air quality, for example, is a baseline deliverable in commercial real estate, but not standard in sports facilities where athletes rely on oxygen to fuel their muscles and facilitate recovery. Many of the interior spaces where athletes spend a lot of time are not monitored to the same standard as a typical office, even in regions that are susceptible to poor outdoor air quality.

Locker rooms, weight training gyms, and practice facilities are largely designed to meet a temperature threshold, but sometimes with no capability to monitor humidity, carbon dioxide levels or other pollutants that can critically impact performance and recovery.

Changing their approach to sleep is the “best supplement” for athletes, says Nick Littlehales, the elite sport sleep coach of many professional sports organisations. Spending hours under constantly-coloured fluorescent lighting can negatively affect sleep cycles. Technologies that mimic natural light can be featured among a suite of design solutions that sports entities can implement to positively influence athletic performance.

Spectators of sport are also increasingly aware of their health, from choosing more conscious food and beverage options to monitoring their mental health conditions – and many things in between. Sports organisations should think more seriously about providing amenities that continue to drive ticket sales and cater to the evolving values of spectators.

While the built environment’s effect on athlete health and wellbeing is largely unexplored, innovative strategies will evolve quickly if and when the sports industry embraces modern practice in commercial real estate. There’s a lot of research, existing design strategies and new technologies that sport can adopt to protect its greatest asset – the athletes.

Kristen Fulmer is the founder of Recipric, an agency that helps sports organisations craft sustainability and wellbeing goals

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