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Blue Health – the benefits of landscapes featuring water

by Jessica Forsyth

Often after making it through a stressful week at work or whilst going through a challenging life event, we experience the instinctive urge to immerse ourselves into nature. In fact, hearing someone say ‘I need to take a walk’ or ‘I need to get some fresh air’ when they are feeling a bit run down is fairly commonplace. But is there any science behind why the outdoors seems to act as a natural medicine and any evidence that being outdoors actually benefits our health?

In recent years there has been increasing interest in the positive impact that getting out into nature and exploring wild spaces can have for our health and wellbeing, both physical and mental. This idea has broadly been termed ‘Green Health’. As this field of research has expanded, the concept of ‘Blue Health’, that is, ‘the impacts of time spent alongside, in, or under water’ has gained a considerable amount of attention. This attention largely stems from scientists’ comparisons of the health benefits of a variety of natural landscapes which appears to suggest that there are distinct health benefits of being in landscapes featuring water, otherwise referred to as ‘blue spaces’.

One project taking a greater look into these benefits is BlueHealth, a pan-European research project led by Exeter University’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH). During the last four years, over 20 studies have been carried out in more than 18 different countries aimed at gaining an insight into how urban blue spaces affect people’s wellbeing. All over the world people live at the boundaries between water and land – whether it be in coastal areas or along riverbanks. Providing evidence that proximity to blue spaces can have a positive impact on health and wellbeing will help to influence urban planning, encouraging the incorporation of urban-water interfaces as a key feature of any newly planned space.  

The benefits incurred from exploring blue spaces are numerous but one particularly interesting one is the impact it has on our train of thought and sense of self-importance. It is very easy to become consumed by everyday things; the weekly shopping, the trials and tribulations associated with work and the jobs that need doing around the house. Dr Mathew White, who works on the BlueHealth project explains that when we go for a walk on the beach there tends to be “a transition towards thinking outwards towards the environment…putting your life in perspective, if you like.” Indeed, when walking along the beach or a coastal cliff top in Cornwall, it is quite hard to stop yourself becoming overwhelmed by the brooding landscape that surrounds you. Standing looking out to sea serves as a reminder of the fact we are part of something much bigger than just the life we lead, we are part of an ecosystem, and spending time in landscapes or environments much ‘greater than we are, diminishes our own sense of self-importance’. Sometimes this reminder that our troubles are small in comparison to the landscape we stand in, can be a powerful way of grounding us and returning a sense of calm back into our, otherwise, chaotic lives.

The benefits of blue health are now so well recognised that in 2010 it led to the establishment of the world’s first surf-therapy course funded by the NHS. The Wave Project was set up in Watergate Bay in Cornwall with the aim of using surfing to support mental health. After an initial pilot run it was concluded that it provided ‘a demonstrable and cost-effective way to deliver mental health care’ and has since been prescribed to those suffering from anxiety and a range of other mental health conditions including depression, and schizophrenia.  In recent years the importance of understanding mental health and finding new ways to help those suffering with it has grown. Projects such as this provide a clear example, and direct evidence, of the benefits that tapping into the medicine of nature can provide and will hopefully act to encourage the set-up of similarly effective programmes.

A quote by Sophie Hellyer, former British and English surfing champion, describes the effect of being in the sea on her wellbeing; ‘The ocean can change your mood: if you think you’re sad it makes you happy, if you’re feeling stressed it makes you calm. It’s like hitting the reset button’.

Using nature to help reset ourselves is something we should all, where possible, take advantage of. Whether it be going for a surf, if you are lucky enough to have access to blue spaces like the sea, or just a fifteen-minute wander in your local park. Immersing ourselves in nature, in whatever capacity, allows us to stop, reflect, remember what’s important and return to our busy lives just that little less flustered.

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