In an intriguing article published online this week in The Atlantic, health writer and editor Julie Beck describes how the small German town of Bad Kissingen has decided to become the world’s first “ChronoCity.”
Last summer, the town’s mayor, town council, and researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich signed a letter of intent in which, reports Beck, “they pledged to promote chronobiology research in the town, to ‘gather results that are directly applicable to living, education, work, well-being, health, mobility, rehabilitation, and sleep.’”
The primary motive behind the initiative is a business one: to boost Bad Kissingen’s medical tourism. The town, which has a population of about 20,000, is home to 17 hospitals, sanatariums and rehabilitation facilities that attract about 250,000 “guests” per year.
The politicians and business leaders of Bad Kissingen are looking for a way to make their spa town stand out from all the others in Europe.
But science — specifically, the science of chronobiology — is also driving the initiative. (Full disclosure: More than two decades ago, I co-authored one of the first popular books on this field of research.)
“Bad Kissingen,” says Beck, “has committed itself to finding ways to implement chronobiology into the fabric of the town’s society.”
The importance of sleep
Chronobiology is the study of the body’s internal biological rhythms and their effect on health. That includes, of course, sleep patterns.
“A person’s preferred sleep pattern is his or her ‘chronotype,’ ” writes Beck. “This is what we’re talking about when we say someone is a morning person or a night owl. Research has shown that living outside your chronotype, which most of us do — waking ourselves up early with an alarm clock for school or work, or staying out too late at the bars — can lead to all kinds of problems other than just being tired: poor memory, depression, obesity, even a greater risk for some kinds of cancer.”
The first step Bad Kissingen is taking — with the help of Thomas Kanterman, a chronobiologist at the University of Groningen — is to encourage all its residents to input their own chronotype data into an online database. That data would then be used apparently (the article doesn’t quite make this clear) to develop healthier ways of arranging work, school and other community-oriented schedules.
Minneapolis receives positive mention in the article for changing the start time of its high schools from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. in 1997.
“A four-year longitudinal study found that students were notably less tardy, less depressed, and less sleepy during class with the later start time,” writes Beck. “And they really were getting more sleep. The data showed the students still went to bed at around the same time as they had before — they weren’t using the later start time as an excuse to stay up late.
A matter of time
In addition to figuring out the general sleep patterns of its citizens and how daily life in the town could be accommodated to better “sync” with those patterns, Bad Kissingen also intends “to experiment with the lighting in local clinics, hotels, and possibly even the town hall,” reports Beck. Chronobiologists often cite artificial lighting as a key modern-day disruptor of our natural sleep cycles.
But, as Kanterman tells Beck, his “great aim” is “to make Bad Kissingen the first town in Germany that abolishes Daylight Savings Time, so the people can decide for themselves to change their clocks or not.”
He wants, he adds, “to make this really a place where your internal time is acknowledged.”
“In a hypothetical future world where Bad Kissingen succeeds in letting all of its citizens and visitors live out their chronotypes, the societal benefits would be huge,” concludes Beck. “The town as a whole would be more creative, happier, and more alert. Social interaction would improve, as would the population’s ability to problem-solve. Chronically tired people often struggle with obesity, immune suppression, and mental illness, so the town’s overall health — both mental and physical — would improve.”
This is an experiment that will be interesting to follow.
You can read Beck’s article on The Atlantic magazine’s website.