INTERIOR DESIGN FOR WELLNESS: Strategies to Encourage Physical Activity in Older Adults

Interior design for wellness spaces allows our team to encourage physical activity, especially for the older adults living in the senior living communities we serve. The benefits of physical activity are well documented, along with the fact that most people need more of it.  This is especially true for older adults.  A multi-year study by Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging has documented that people living in life plan communities report more healthy behaviors than other older adults, in part due to the ready availability of resources.  In recent years, we have seen a number of life plan communities place renewed emphasis on resident health and well-being by expanding or updating their wellness facilities.

A holistic wellness program goes beyond physical fitness, but physical spaces and activities that promote movement and engagement are certainly an important foundation.  According to the WELL Building Standard, environment plays a significant role in active living and physical activity. Our team provides interior design for wellness spaces that support our clients’ programs, minimize potential physical and mental barriers and encourage participation.

Changing rooms provide privacy and dignity for older adults participating in fitness programs.
One way that we help to encourage participation in fitness program is by providing fully accessible locker rooms that include changing rooms for older adults who prefer more privacy or need assistance. Photo: Lutheran Community at Telford

Interior Design to Encourage Older Adults to Utilize Wellness Amenities

Jessie Shappell: Wellness spaces should be designed to be visually inviting, colorful, interesting, and fun!  The various fitness amenities should be arranged to allow ample space for different activities, promote views to nature and encourage equipment use.

Matt Barley:  Effective branding and signage brings attention to wellness spaces and sets the right tone for the activities occurring in each area.  This extends beyond the typical exercise equipment rooms, classrooms and aquatics centers.

Many of the senior living communities we work with have fitness circuits on their campus.  One idea to extend their use would be incorporating dedicated indoor stations and activity areas as part of the circuit.  Cohesive finish colors, flooring and branding can tie the different areas together and guide participants through the indoor and outdoor components of the circuit.  This could increase participation by making the circuit more visually accessible and extending use throughout hot or cold seasons for those who don’t wish to venture outdoors.

Interior design for wellness features energizing color schemes in active fitness spaces
Interior design for wellness “goes bold” with energizing color schemes for active fitness spaces. Photos (L to R): Landis Homes, Woodcrest Villa, Kendal at Hanover

Interior Design Considerations for Fitness Areas

Matt:  Materials selections can help to define the activities occurring in a particular space.  For example, with heart-pumping activities, a bold color palette (like yellow/purple or orange/blue) and designed or tailored materials that provide subconscious references to the body as a machine would work well.  Conversely, for stretching/meditative settings, we tend to favor a neutral or muted color palette and natural materials highlighting craftsmanship to provide subtle references to the body as spirit.

Ceiling fans are a nice addition to provide moving air in active areas, along with appropriate ventilation systems for fresh air/air exchanges.  Mirrors increase the perceived size of fitness areas, making spaces feel more open and bright. However, they are also a fitness tool to help people improve their posture, check for proper positioning and monitor progress.

Jessie:  Acoustics are critical in fitness spaces.  We often coordinate speakers into the design. In fitness spaces with amplified sound and music pumping, it can get loud!  Proper acoustical detailing and treatment is essential to keep sound from transferring to adjacent, quieter spaces. These measures also help with sound transmission quality within a space so that participants can comfortably participate in staff-led exercise programs.

We recommend flooring with a resilient backing is important to provide underfoot comfort and impact resistance.  Ceiling elements can be playful such as clouds, blades and baffles or colorful lighting fixtures.

Matt:  We also recommend resistant wall materials from four feet down to the floor, as well as vinyl fabrics that can hold up to a rigorous cleaning regimen.

fitness equipment layout for older adults considers accessibility, comfort safety and outdoor views
When helping clients lay out fitness equipment, we consider accessibility, comfort, safety and views. Power and data access are priorities as well. Photo: Lutheran Community at Telford

Assisting Clients with Fitness Area Space Layouts

Matt:  We start by listening to the senior living community’s leadership and wellness staff members. Our team asks questions about intended use and wellness programs taking place in each area.  We will survey existing equipment and lay out floor patterns when using carpet or Luxury Vinyl Tile ( LVT) to coordinate with individual program activities (e.g. physical therapy, yoga, stretching).

Jessie:  Space planning is critical for functionality of exercise equipment rooms, classrooms and spas.  We provide guidance for clearances around fitness equipment and coordinate with power and data in the space.

Interior design for wellness includes color, texture and natural light for rehab gyms
Color, texture and natural light promote physical activity and well-being for all levels of care. Photos (L to R): Bishop Gadsden health center rehab (rendering) and Brethren Village rehab gym

Trends in Wellness and Physical Activity for Older Adults

Jessie:  We are seeing is a greater emphasis on wellness and physical well-being at all levels of senior care.  LiveWell will have a Movement Studio and Equipment Studio in its Center for Resilient Living, designed to help people living with dementia live well.  There is also a large patio in the courtyard intended to be used for yoga and meditation.  Wellness is a community focus for LiveWell, and the new Center for Resilient Living strategically locates the wellness spaces immediately beyond the building’s lobby.  Similarly, Bishop Gadsden’s new health center features a large rehabilitation gym with soaring windows and bright colors to help restore resident health and well-being.

Matt:  People of all ages want to live in walkable communities that connect them to the outdoors.  We were already seeing this prior to the pandemic shutdowns and since that time it has accelerated.  Desired amenities include maintained trails for walking, biking, rollerblading; waterways for canoeing, boating and kayaking; hiking trails; and other physical activity options.  As a rock climber myself, it’s not uncommon to see older adult climbers in their 70s and 80s at the local crag.

A golf simulator is planned for the clubhouse expansion taking place at Country House Estates, an Acts Retirement-Life Community.

For communities not in close proximity to these types of amenities, look for partnering opportunities with local community centers or consider introducing unique on-site amenities—from rock walls to golf simulators. These non-traditional fitness amenities encourage residents to keep moving and create new opportunities for intergenerational connections.

Interior Design for Wellness Can’t Overlook Technology Trends

Matt: Technology integration, with exercise equipment or through social media apps, has gained acceptance among all age groups.  This can be a great tool for melding physical fitness and social connections. Our own team used the CountIt tracking app for a step competition that worked with various tracking devices. It’s just one of many technology resources that can help to motivate and make physical activity fun.

Hand washing station at fitness center entry with automatic towel dispenser, soap and water dispensers; automatic bottle filler and biophilic design elements.
A hand washing station at the fitness center entry for Country House Estates is equipped with automatic towel, soap and water dispensers, as well as an automatic bottle filler and biophilic design elements.

COVID-19 Impacts on Interior Design for Wellness Areas

Jessie:  Sanitizing stations, handwashing, social distancing, and of course masking are now prevalent in fitness spaces. The need for air filtration, increased outside air (Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems or DOAS) and healthy indoor air quality is thankfully now considered a necessity, not just a luxury.

Matt:  Stainless steel grab bars are being replaced with synthetic material options for continued bleach cleanability. Handwashing, sanitizer and PPE stations are now included in the essential equipment for fitness spaces. In addition, the value of outdoor hardscaping adjacent to interior physical therapy and fitness spaces has been reinforced. Many communities have moved some fitness programming outdoors to provide a safer option for residents. These spaces provide the added benefits of outdoor air and sunshine for much-needed Vitamin D.

Jessie: Cleanliness, cleanability and infection control were important prior to the pandemic, but are now at the forefront.  This increased public awareness about how diseases and viruses can spread through the air and on surfaces has helped to progress much-needed sanitation practices. The prior practice of wiping down a machine is no longer sufficient.  Facilities are recognizing the necessity to thoroughly clean fitness spaces and equipment to help keep users healthy.

The latest version of the WELL Building Standard has a Materials subsection dedicated to Cleaning Products and Protocols. Acceptable cleaning products and training and protocols for effective cleaning practices are critical considerations in tandem with our current focus on infection control.

Nature connections are always a priority, but these fitness amenities physically connect users with the outdoors. Photos (L to R): Village on the Isle hybrid apartment building gym open to top floor balcony, Meadowood aquatics center open to courtyard patio

Physical Activity Benefits Senior Residents and Communities

Wellness initiatives are sometimes driven by marketing need to appeal to consumers. However, there is much more to be gained from encouraging physical activity for residents AND staff members.  Numerous studies have shown the connection between sedentary behavior and negative health outcomes. Conversely, quality of life—physical, emotional and mental health—can be improved with physical activity. Our team is committed to helping senior living communities create appealing, comfortable and diverse opportunities for physical activity.

Jessie Shappell, IIDA, RA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C, is excited to see the positive changes associated with recent wellness trends. She also appreciates increased awareness by the general population about effective hygiene and infection control. COVID-19 is leading many people to take a second look at design principles such as the WELL Building Standard. WELL is based on the premise that buildings should be developed with health and wellness at the center of design.

Matt Barley, Associate IIDA, appreciates the opportunity to meld his passion for design with his love of the outdoors.  He can especially relate to the trend for outdoor community amenities. Matt will tell you this is one of the reasons that his hometown, Columbia, is Pennsylvania’s best kept secret!  He shares that one of the reasons he gets so excited about designing wellness and rehabilitation facilities is the impact it can have on people’s lives and the reminder to maintain his own physical activity every day.

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED-AP

Additional Resources:

Why I Take My Dad (with Dementia) Hiking with Me – Our Inspiration for this Blog!

Matt found this video that highlights the benefits of physical activity for people of all ages. It is very relevant to his life, family, community and senior living.  In the video, Crystal, “The Traveling Addict,” shares why she takes her father, who has dementia, on hikes.  Watch the YouTubeVideo

Facts from Crystal about dementia and hiking: Out of 11 studies, it shows that regular exercise can reduce dementia symptoms by 30-45%. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed the best results for patients who walked 8,900 -10,000 steps per day. Roughly 4.5 miles per day seems to slow the dementia process down.

Is Your Wellness Program a Critical Resource or an Afterthought?

“Wellness” is replacing “care” as the guiding concept for community operations. It has evolved to enrich the lives of residents and attract new ones. It  extends beyond physical fitness to include emotional, spiritual, intellectual, occupational, social, and environmental factors no matter the individual’s generation or abilities.

See what communities are doing to create a wellness culture that spans generations and abilitiesCheck out our WELLNESS RESOURCES

Interior Design Strategies for Natatoriums/Aquatics Centers

Outdoor pools are associated with warm weather fun, relaxation and low impact exercise. Indoor pools can offer these same benefits year-round in every climate. However, indoor pools require careful considerations to provide a comfortable and appealing space that will endure for many years.  We’ve asked a couple of our designers for their thoughts and ideas to create a successful indoor pool space, also known as natatoriums or aquatics centers, whether for a retirement community, school or college campus, community center, hotel or other hospitality venue.  Read Taking the Plunge: Interior Design Strategies for Indoor Pool Areas

Wellness Routine for 55+

In keeping with our theme, Matt shared the following daily wellness routine. Although it’s apparently designed for the 55+ demographic, it would work for 25+ as well!  Please note:  as design professionals, we are only sharing information. Check with a healthcare provider or fitness professional before starting a new exercise routine. This applies to any age.

  • Balance on One Foot: 10 seconds
  • Move Body Weight Object
  • Squat: Hold for 30 seconds and stand up w/ no assistance
  • Bar Hang: 30 Seconds
  • Stand Up, get down on floor and back up w/ no assistance
  • Standing Long Jump: Distance how tall you are.
  • Walk one mile on uneven ground