A few years ago, during a stressful period, I returned to the northeast coast of Scotland, where I grew up. As I worked through my personal crises over a few weeks, I found comfort in watery sites, whether it was fog-draped sea cliffs, deep lochs or little fishing villages. Looking back, I think I sought out those places with an innate sense of their power to heal. And it’s that same sense that has sent me seeking water over the past year.
During the pandemic, many people have discovered the restorative benefits of green spaces. Now, there’s growing evidence that there may be similar benefits from being around water, or “blue spaces.”
From 2016 to 2020, researchers at BlueHealth — an interdisciplinary research project funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program — investigated the links between water-based environments and health and well-being. The team, which includes public health experts, psychologists, epidemiologists and landscape architects, surveyed 18,000 people in 18 (mainly European) countries and collected information about their visits to blue spaces (mostly the coast but also rivers, lakes and even fountains). The self-reported results suggest that being near water can boost mental and physical well-being.
That is hardly astounding news to anyone who has ever spent a rejuvenating day at the beach. “People obviously have an intuitive sense that blue is good,” says Cornwall-based James Grellier, an environmental epidemiologist and BlueHealth’s project manager; after all, many people travel to places with water for their vacations. But now there is science to back up this intuition.
“It’s not like the field was completely new,” Grellier said, adding that the BlueHealth project drew upon existing research into green spaces. “About 20 years ago, people started looking at how green spaces have a positive effect on people’s mental and physical health and on their life satisfaction, things like that, and on the environment. But nobody seemed to have specifically looked at blue spaces.”
Visiting blue spaces is important to people who are seeking to unwind. “We know this simply from analyzing people’s habits, in terms of where they tend to visit and what they tend to value,” Grellier said. “For example, we know that people spend more money on [hotel] rooms with sea views.”
The BlueHealth project found that short but regular time spent in blue spaces, such as a daily 20-minute walk along a seafront, cumulatively boosts long-term well-being (although the study found no significant positive impact on cardiovascular responses). For less regular visits, such as vacations, the long-term impact is unknown, but people typically experience a bump in positive feelings. “We know from a variety of study types that people report higher subjective well-being, improved mood and feelings of vitality and of restoration,” after vacations to blue spaces, Grellier said.
The researchers found three main avenues leading to this reaction: the physical, environmental and psychologically restorative effects of water.
Being around water allows you “to relax and restore your cognitive processes,” said Grellier, and there are specific beneficial features: “The sound of water, for example, is known to be more relaxing than urban noise.” The researchers also found that people are more physically active when they visit blue spaces. “They walk for longer, and they tend to do it in a more sociable way,” Grellier said. “So, it’s good for them, in terms of their social health, their psychological health and their physical health.” Finally, blue spaces mitigate environmental problems, “they reduce urban heat for example. Even if it’s just a fountain or a stream, it reduces the temperature in cities.”
The good news is that even a humble blue space can have a positive effect. So there’s no need to shell out for a vacation at a swanky resort in the Maldives; you can plan a trip to any old beach. Across countries, the researchers found that the most anxiety-reducing and enjoyable visits to watery locations, Grellier said, involve “informal social activities, like playing with kids, paddling, sunbathing,” i.e., the kind of activities that characterize vacations in blue spaces. “It doesn't sound like rocket science, but the point is that these things have never been explored using validated psychological questionnaires.”
Nature on prescription
Probably the best-known examination of water’s healing powers is Wallace J. Nichols’s best-selling 2014 book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do,” which explored water’s many benefits, from the physical to the creative. In it, Nichols writes of the therapeutic benefits of water activities, such as surf therapy in the United States, and asks, “What if your doctor handed you a prescription for stress or ill health that read, ‘Take two waves, a beach walk, and some flowing river, and call me in the morning?’ ”
In fact, over the past few years there has been increasing interest in “nature prescriptions,” in which doctors prescribe time outdoors (two hours a week in nature seems to be the threshold for improved health and well-being). The BlueHealth researchers, however, found that for people with anxiety, the more pressure put on them to visit nature, the less motivated they were and the more anxious they felt.
To avoid this, “it’s really important that you make the prescription personalized,” said Julze Alejandre, a public health nutrition and health promotion specialist at Glasgow Caledonian University. Just telling people to spend time in green or blue spaces doesn’t work if “that person might not be very comfortable going outside or not a very nature-loving person.”
A reciprocal relationship
Over in Ireland, professional surfer and environmental scientist Easkey Britton has had “a relationship with water my whole life.” Her recognition of water’s healing and transformative qualities has “probably always been there because it’s been that place I knew I could feel fully myself.”
Britton weaves her experience of competitive surfing with marine science research and, more recently, blue health research, by studying humans’ relationship with the ocean through a health and well-being lens. She believes that establishing an emotional connection helps to communicate a way that people can personally feel and understand the relevance of the ocean to our lives. “It’s great to see a surge in things like wild [outdoor] swimming and surf therapy,” she said. “But then the flip side is if we don’t have any ‘wild’ places left, or places with good quality bathing water, then it’s not actually the healthiest thing to do.”
Whether on a far-flung vacation or closer to home, people should be encouraged to seek blue spaces, “with the caveat that coastal environments are quite sensitive places,” Grellier said. “You don’t want the world and his wife all going to the same place. You really want to be able to make sure that people understand how to visit responsibly, and safely.” During the pandemic, photographs of crowded beaches and concerns over disturbance to marine animals have highlighted the necessity of this caveat.
Reaping the benefits of coastal areas doesn’t have to be damaging. “Some blue space activities are conservation activities,” said Alejandre, who suggested incorporating beach cleaning into a blue space visit. That may not sound like a particularly appealing vacation activity, but some people find that it is an enjoyable way to forge a close connection with a coastal destination. Coastal Connections, a nonprofit in Vero Beach, Fla., for example, reports vacationers as participants at their coastal cleanup projects. Similar conservation activities abound, such as protecting turtle hatchlings, helping scientists collect research data on whale sharks or restoring historic Hawaiian fish ponds. When people participate in such activities, Alejandre said, “they actually also improve their environmental knowledge. So that makes them value nature or blue spaces more.”
Britton includes responsible coastal activities in her new book, “50 Things to Do at the Beach,” such as learning to read riptides or foraging for seaweed sustainably. The book is about both what the ocean can do for us and what we can do for it. Understanding how our health and wellness is supported by water “kind of shifts our perspective on it a little bit,” Britton said, rather than seeing it as “something that’s just [where we] go to on holidays.”
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