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Can a warmer office make us healthier?

Matt Richmond

At Cornell University’s Ergonomics Center, Professor Alan Hedge demonstrates new designs for a computer mouse. One looks like an old-fashioned desktop penholder. There’s one that looks like the throttle on a airplane. And another is long and flat.

About 39% of the American work force, or around 55 million people, spend their days in offices. And that number is likely to keep going up.

Hedge says the mouse is just one of the things in an office that could use a better design. He says there’s a huge toll on health because of things like poorly designed chairs or a stressful environment.

“Back injuries, neck, shoulder, hand injuries, together these musculoskeletal injuries cost an enormous amount of money,” says Hedge.

He says the bill comes to about $65 billion a year. And then there’s the cost to companies from decreased productivity.

In a study originally published in 2006, Hedge found that when the thermostat is turned up from 70 degrees to the mid-70's, workers spend far more time at their desks and make far fewer mistakes.

But he says there isn't proof yet that turning up the temperature has any benefits beyond productivity.

“It’s hard to know whether there are long-term consequences of being overcooled in your building, there may be but nobody’s done that research,” says Hedge.

Body temperature and obesity

In Binghamton University’s bioengineering labs, Professor Ken McLeod says he has proof that a warmer office will make people healthier.

"So the gist of it is that when people talk about obesity, they tend to talk about energy balance, you know, calories in, calories out. So they want to focus on diet and they want to focus on exercise," says McLeod.

He says the main benefit of exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week, is that it increases a person’s core body temperature. And when your body temperature goes up, you produce more growth hormones.

“But you can see below 37 degrees, we make no growth hormone," says McLeod.

Growth hormones increase a person’s metabolism and that keeps their weight in check.

"You push up even half a degree and you can see this curve coming up fast and by 38 degrees, you’re pushing up a maximum amount of growth hormone, it’s gone up more than 100-fold,” says McLeod.

A personal heating device

McLeod wonders: why should we settle for exercising 30-minutes-a-day to get our body temperature up, when we spend 40 hours a week in the office, letting our bodies do what they have to to keep warm?

“If we’re not exercising enough to maintain our core temperature, we’re going to do something else and what that something else is is insulating ourselves from the cold. We lay down white body fat under our skin,” says McLeod.

So he is building a personal heating device that uses a low-frequency laser to to keep people warm.

McLeod’s personal heater works by directing warmth right at a person, instead of heating up the air around them. He estimates that his heater, which looks like a typical floor lamp, would only need about 15 watts of power, compared to more than a thousand watts for a space heater.

"In your lifetime, we will completely transform the world from building heating to people heating, that I think will happen," says McLeod.

McLeod says it should take two years before the first of his heaters is on the market. He recently received a grant from SUNY's Technology Accelerator Fund to develop a prototype.

Matt Richmond comes to Binghamton's WSKG, a WRVO partner station in the Innovation Trail consortium, from South Sudan, where he worked as a stringer for Bloomberg, and freelanced for Radio France International, Voice of America, and German Press Agency dpa. He has worked with KQED in Los Angeles, Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, and served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. Matt's masters in journalism is from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.