Decluttering Your Space for Health and Happiness

Jesse Silkoff

If you think the decluttering craze is just for Martha Stewart-wannabes, think again. Environmental factors, like whether our homes are cluttered or clean, can play a big part in our happiness, mental wellness, and ultimately our physical fitness.

In fact, health professionals have linked excess clutter to increased anxiety, depression, and even weight gain. A study led by Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab, for instance, found that people with messy kitchens tend to consume more calories — and often make worse food choices than those with tidier homes.

This finding supports what decluttering experts have been saying for years. There’s a link between chaotic environments and out-of-control eating habits. Our homes often correlate to our inner life, and if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, you may feel like you have absolutely no time for picking up.

Sadly, however, that may end up contributing to anxiety, rather than relieving it, since cluttered environments can tax your brain’s cognitive functioning. Specifically, here’s how clutter affects your mental and physical health — and what you can do about it.

Your Brain on Clutter

There’s a reason we hang on to things long after they’ve stopped serving their purpose. Yale imaging studies show that decluttering actually triggers the same regions of the brain that are stimulated when we feel pain. So if you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious in your day-to-day life, keeping these items around you may help you avoid additional suffering — at least in the short term.

Unfortunately, just like overeating, hoarding behaviors avert perceived pain rather than offering solutions to life’s problems. Ironically, these kinds of emotional “shortcuts” usually end up causing more frustration and anxiety in the long run. For instance, a cluttered environment can overtax our cognitive centers, overwhelming the brain with external stimuli — which ratchets up anxiety and competes for our attention when we try to complete high-concentration tasks.

If you’re already prone to self-soothing with external items, like food or shopping, then that clutter can soon become part of a negative cycle: You buy or acquire new things to feel less stressed, then feel more stressed because your home is cluttered with too many things, so you go shopping again. Somewhere, you have to draw the line and take back control over your life. That’s where this next part comes in.

Taking on a Really Messy Home

If you’ve really let your house go (don’t feel embarrassed, we’ve all been there), sometimes just getting started is the biggest obstacle to a clean, decluttered home. Not only do you have to overcome any shame you may feel, you may also feel overwhelmed and unsure where to begin — particularly if your emotional resources are overtaxed as it is.

Start Small: Begin with a smaller task, like clearing off a countertop, the kitchen table, or a small part of the floor. Narrowing your focus this way makes the whole job seem less intimidating—and helps you celebrate the small victories. Whatever you do, don’t try to clean your whole house in a day. Organizing experts say that people rarely have the stamina for an extended eight-hour cleaning session.

Don’t Just Sort It, Get Rid of It. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: you’re knee-deep in piles of clothes. You’ve got your “to donate” pile, your “to toss” pile, and your “to keep” pile. But instead of going the full mile and actually taking the clothes to the donation center or out to the curb, you let them sit in a heap in your room for a couple weeks, where eventually they merge with all the junk on your floor. When you start cleaning your home, try to take each job to completion — even if that means a drive to Goodwill.

Find a Home for Things. Try to think of the surfaces in your home as workspaces — not just another place to store junk. For instance, your kitchen counters should be used for food preparation and cooking, and not to hold overflow for a stuffed pantry. Cooking instruments that you don’t use regularly, like a food processor or a rice steamer, can go in the closet or an extra drawer to keep things clear. No room? Purchase a utility shelf from a restaurant supply store — anything to get those surfaces cleaned off.

Cleaning and Exercise Go Hand and Hand

If you’re trying to declutter and get healthier, you’re in luck. Many household chores burn calories, too. According to Reader’s Digest, sweeping or mopping burns about 240 calories an hour — about on par with an hour-long walk. Moving boxes or adjusting furniture, meanwhile, nets you more like 340 calories per hour, so you can definitely fit in a light workout while you clean up.

Of course, if you really want to lose weight and get healthy, you’ll probably need to add in a full workout routine. Stressed, busy people often find that a personal trainer helps keep them going — especially when life gets hectic. A trainer can act like a personal support system, offering the inspiration you need to hit the gym when you feel a little overwhelmed. Hey, you may even find that working out is an even better way to cope with stress than adding to your shoe collection. Your closets will thank you!

Jesse Silkoff is an avid runner and tennis player. He currently resides in Austin, TX where he works as the President and Co-Founder of FitnessTrainer, the leading online marketplace to find a local personal trainer that can help you achieve your health and wellness goals.

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