Why your office is so cold, and how to deal with it | Popular Science
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Why your office is so cold, and how to deal with it

The summer freeze is upon us.

woman shivering

The big chill is here.

The great indoors is a chilly place. This is especially true come summer, when the air conditioning roars into life at the same time that many women switch their work wardrobe to lightweight blouses, dresses, and sandals.

There are actually a bunch of reasons why office buildings seem to have been modeled after the frozen caves of Hoth. One problem, scientists have argued, is that office thermostat settings are still influenced by what researchers figured an “average male” would find comfortable in the 1960s and '70s, and that this is far from ideal for many workers.

The truth is a little more complicated—but it is very common for office buildings to be kept frosty enough to leave many workers uncomfortable, says Stefano Schiavon, an associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Is there anything we, the permanently chilly, can do to train our bodies to be more cold tolerant? And what will it actually take to make an office environment that keeps more of us comfortable?

Actually changing our body’s response to cold isn’t easy, although people have occasionally managed it. There are other ways to make our offices more pleasant for everyone to work in, though, and finding the right balance could even have health benefits.

Ha! I knew my office was too cold.

Not every workplace has the same temperature requirements. However, women tend to feel chilled more quickly than men and seem to be particularly vulnerable to wintry working conditions in balmy weather.

That’s partly because on average, women carry around a little more body fat. “Fat is a great insulator and because of that, the skin temperature can actually get a little bit lower in women than men,” says John Castellani, a research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts. So even if the core is kept nice and toasty, it might not feel that way.

Women’s generally lower metabolism also contributes to the problem, says Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, a physiologist at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands. He was one of the researchers who reported in 2015 that women doing office work have lower metabolic rates than those typically included in the models that predict what conditions are needed to keep people comfortable indoors. “Current indoor climate standards may intrinsically misrepresent thermal demand of the female and senior subpopulations,” the team wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change. They also noted that women may prefer an average room temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit, while men are most comfortable at around 72 degrees.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the study looked at a pretty small number of people, all women. And, of course, these are pretty broad generalizations. There’s a lot of variation in how different people respond to the cold. “Your physiology, your height, your weight, your body mass, how much you are clothed, [and] the type of activity you do all affect your thermal comfort,” Schiavon says.

In fact, the indoor climate standards created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) did take women into account, Bjarne Olesen, one of the engineers who worked on the recommendations, told Wired. Metabolic rates vary more between individuals than between sexes, he said.

However, one thing that van Marken Lichtenbelt and Olesen can agree on is that office buildings are kept too cold. The ASHRAE standards recommend that indoor temperatures stay between 73 and 79 degrees in summer. But a survey of office buildings in 2009 revealed that indoor air temperatures often fall below this range, and are in fact colder than the temperature settings for winter.

This means that people of all sexes are at risk from the office chill today. “Somehow that is getting more and more extreme, especially in summertime,” van Marken Lichtenbelt says. “It’s a very strange thing, to cool these offices that much.” Offices today often fall between 68 and 72 degrees, he says.

The air conditioning equipment itself is partly to blame for over-chilled offices, Schiavon says. Air conditioning systems are often oversized and struggle to find the right balance of air temperature and humidity. “It is like to trying to cut your nail with a ribbon cutting scissor,” Schiavon says. “You don’t have the right machine for the work that you are doing and therefore you tend to overcool.”

Whatever the reason for the chilly climate in so many offices, the upshot is that we spend a lot of effort on maintaining temperatures that workers don’t actually like.

“At the same time you waste energy and you make people uncomfortable,” Schiavon says.

Sounds about right. How can I stop being so miserable?

It may be possible to trick yourself into feeling warm. Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that a room’s lighting can impact how comfortable the people inside it feel. People who sat in a room illuminated by yellowish-red light felt warmer than those in a room bathed in blue light, even when the temperature was actually dropping. “There’s a long historical association there, potentially dating back to red campfires and blue ice,” coauthor David Shipworth, a researcher at the UCL Energy Institute told BBC Capital.

There are also a few ways our bodies can adapt to handle the cold. The most common one is called habituation, and you might have experienced it during seasonal shifts, Castellani says. Let’s say you’re getting up on a chilly October morning, and the thermometer reads 50 degrees. “It’s like, ‘wow, it’s really cold out today,’ and it’s uncomfortable,” Castellani says. But then March arrives, and the exact same temperature can feel invitingly warm. “It’s 50 degrees outside and you’re like, ‘I’m going to go walk around in a t-shirt!’” Castellani says.

So what’s going on? In summer, your body makes a few changes to its physiology to resist the heat, such as making you sweat more easily. Meanwhile, in winter, your body sends a little more blood to exposed areas like the face and hands to keep your skin warm, Castellani says. It takes your body a few days to adjust at the onset of spring or fall, and this affects your perception of how cool it feels.

Similarly, you will become a bit more comfortable over time if you work in chilly conditions. “When you are regularly exposed to cold you get used to it,” van Marken Lichtenbelt says. “Of course, there are limits.” For many people, especially women, the temperature settings in office buildings are below the limit of what their bodies can learn to be comfortable with, he acknowledges.

There are also ways to force your body to become more tolerant of the cold, but you’d need to endure some pretty intense chilliness to make them happen. People who spend a lot of time outside and don’t wear much heavy clothing, including indigenous peoples in Australia, can cope with large drops in their skin and core body temperatures without shivering, Castellani says. One explanation for this is that shivering all the time would demand a lot of energy. “By being able to walk around with lower temperatures and still be able to function, your metabolic cost is a lot lower,” Castellani says.

Military researchers have been able to bring about similar adaptations in the lab by asking men to sit in cold water for 90 minutes a day, five days a week, for five weeks while wearing nothing but swim trunks. “We typically don’t tell people this is what you want to do,” Castellani says. This is partly because the training is so darn miserable, and partly because the changes it brings about are pretty subtle. In other words: your body might become better at conserving heat, but you still wouldn’t wind up feeling immune to the cold.

That being said, extreme athlete Wim Hof has worked out a training regimen that he claims helps him withstand frigid conditions. Hof, who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro while wearing shorts and run a half marathon in the Arctic with bare feet, relies on a combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and exposure to icy water. It turns out that this technique may help Hof block out the cold by prompting the brain to release cannabinoids and opioids. This painkilling response ultimately leads to “decreased sensitivity to cold exposure and [promotes] a feeling of euphoria and well-being,” scientists wrote in the journal NeuroImage in February.

“By accident or by luck he found a hack into the physiological system,” Otto Musik, a pediatrician at the Wayne State University School of Medicine and one of the researchers, told Smithsonian.

Freezing water isn’t really my thing.

Well, there is a much simpler way to make office buildings comfortable for more of the people who work inside them: back off on the air conditioning. After all, air conditioners are expensive to run and contribute to global warming. Since half the world’s population will live in the tropics by midcentury, finding an energy-efficient and affordable way to keep offices cool is vital, Schiavon says.

Some places have begun to realize that more relaxed dress codes, particularly for men, would make workers more comfortable in balmier conditions. In Japan, the government runs a campaign called Cool Biz every summer that encourages businesses to raise the thermostat and allow their employees to don short-sleeved shirts instead of suits and ties.

Meanwhile, Schiavon and his colleagues argue that installing fans in offices would save energy and keep workers satisfied. Instead of running the air conditioner all summer, offices would rely on fans until the temperature climbed past a certain level, at which point the AC would kick in. Fans are more energy-efficient and cheaper than air conditioners, Schiavon points out.

Of course, people have different preferences for how warm they want to be. “There is not one temperature that satisfies everyone; it would be the equivalent of saying there is one clothing size or one shoe size that needs to fit everyone,” Schiavon says. “We are all different and we need to provide a more personalized environment.”

Ideally, he says, every worker would have their own desk fan, allowing them to control the temperature in their immediate vicinity. Come winter, people could keep their workspace toasty by using heated chairs or electric mats that they could rest their feet on.

There are plenty of offices where it wouldn’t be practical for everyone to have their own fan, though. That’s why Schiavon and his colleagues are also working on smart fans for shared spaces. Anyone in the office could give feedback by texting whether they think it's too hot or cold as needed, and the fan system would take that into account when "deciding" on the overall fan speed. Air conditioning systems do not typically have this feature, Schiavon says.

Great. My office isn’t about to start installing fancy fans, though.

Don’t despair. If you're simply doomed to be somewhat uncomfortable in the office all summer, there may still be a bright side. Scientists actually think there are health benefits to being a bit chilly.

When we’re cold, our bodies start making use of brown fat. Unlike white fat, which stores energy, brown fat burns calories and releases heat. Scientists thought until recently that babies use brown fat to keep warm, but that it disappeared by the time we reached adulthood. But in 2009, several teams of scientists, including van Marken Lichtenbelt and his colleagues, realized that grownups do hold onto some brown fat. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out how to turn it on in hopes that this could help us lose weight.

Van Marken Lichtenbelt and his team have also reported that if our surroundings are outside our comfort zone, our metabolism increases and the cardiovascular system gets a workout. Basically, the body has to expend more energy to maintain its temperature in warm or cool settings. In chilly conditions, brown fat is likely playing a role in this, although there’s still a ways to go before we fully understand how much brown fat might contribute to our health, van Marken Lichtenbelt says.

Still, he suspects that we might be able to benefit from cool conditions without enduring glacial offices. “You do not need to suffer,” van Marken Lichtenbelt says. In fact, he thinks that the best approach might be to vary the temperature in office buildings throughout the day. This would allow us to get benefits from both warm and cool conditions. Plus, he says, people find cold conditions more manageable when they know they won’t stick around for too long.

And office workers aren’t the only people who’d benefit, he says. After retiring, elderly people often spend a lot of time indoors, where temperatures don’t vary much. This actually can leave their bodies less resilient if there is a heat wave or cold spell, van Marken Lichtenbelt says. “By creating a too-stable indoor environment, you create fragility.”

He’s now beginning to study what range of temperatures would be most beneficial for employees and elderly people. “It also depends on the local climate,” van Marken Lichtenbelt says. “It’s very difficult to give general directions, especially the States where you have so many different environments.”

All in all, it’s going to be awhile before we figure out the healthiest and most energy-efficient temperatures for office buildings. If your office is determined to do its finest impression of winter in Antarctica, the best you can do for now is probably get up and take the occasional walk, van Marken Lichtenbelt says. It will warm you up, plus it’s healthier than staying planted on your butt all day.

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