Discover why simply being near water is so good for the body and soul
There’s something deeply mesmerising about being near water. Whether it’s standing on a shoreline, watching the waves roll in and out, sitting by the still expanse of an atmospheric inland lake or listening to the rush of a gurgling stream – these tranquil spots all have the ability to engage our senses and soothe our soul. How often, when asked to close our eyes and recall a favourite place that’s special to us, does this spot include an idyllic stretch of water?
Ongoing research suggests that proximity to water or ‘blue space’ is good for our overall health and wellbeing. This includes everything from the benefits of being outdoors, such as boosting levels of vitamin D and increased physical activity, to easing emotional tensions by lowering stress levels and promoting inner calm. A 2018 study in Hong Kong found people with a view of the water or those who regularly visited blue spaces reported greater wellbeing and had a low risk of depression.*
“Being by water naturally makes us feel at ease,” says Dr Jaimie Bloch, clinical psychologist and founder of Mindmovers Psychology. “It is serene, tranquil and calming. Being by water requires us to be in the moment. Whether it is captivating in its beauty, hypnotic in its sounds or even if we are in water, engaging in an activity – we have to be present. In today’s world, this isn’t always easy so anything you can do to be outdoors around blue space can only benefit your daily living.”
In 2016, a cross-disciplinary research project was set up to study the links between blue spaces, particularly urban blue spaces, and the health and wellbeing of people. The BlueHealth initiative included an international survey in which 18 (mostly European) countries took part.
According to Dr Mathew White, environmental psychologist and a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter which leads the project, there are three established ways the presence of water is positively related to health, wellbeing and happiness. These are the beneficial environmental factors typical of water-based surroundings such as cleaner air quality; increased levels of physical activity associated with stretches of water (water sports, walking, cycling) and the psychologically restorative effect of water.
“Water-based environments are particularly restorative,” says Dr Jo Garrett, a postdoctoral researcher on the BlueHealth project. “Water holds your attention effortlessly, allowing your mind to recover from the stresses of daily life. Many studies find that blue space has a stronger effect on physical wellbeing and mental health than green spaces.”
Ultimately, BlueHealth hopes to establish how ‘blue infrastructure’ – the coast, rivers, inland lakes, ornamental fountains – can help tackle major public health challenges such as obesity and mental health problems.
In his book, Blue Mind (£10.99, Little, Brown) American marine biologist Wallace J Nichols suggests that being close to water can not only make us happier, calmer and more emotionally healthy but also more successful in life, relationships and even business. “We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, and increase innovation and insight,” he states.
Nichols calls this connection with water and elements associated with water, the ‘blue mind’ - a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.
The science is still evolving but studies carried out by neurologists and psychologists, using brain imaging, indicate that being near water floods the brain with feel-good hormones such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Also, that levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, fall.
“Research shows that nature is therapeutic and promotes general health and wellbeing,” says Nichols. “Blue space in both urban and rural settings further enhances and broadens cognitive, emotional, psychological, social, physical and spiritual benefits. When you are near water, it helps you relax and literally sucks the stress out of your body and out of your mind.”
And it seems any water is better than none. “People can experience the benefits of the water whether they’re near an ocean, a lake, river, swimming pool, by a fountain or even in the shower,” maintains Wallace Nichols. “You step in the shower and auditorily it’s the same thing as listening to the ocean or a river – a steady stream of calming ‘blue noise’.”
So, what’s the best way to reap the benefits of the blue space effect?
1. Try to spend time near blue space regularly. You don’t have to live near the beach to enjoy its benefits – simply altering your usual route to work or school run to pass by a stretch of water or a water feature will be beneficial.
2. Make blue space your ‘me time’. Go for a walk or take a book and just sit and read by the water.
3. When you go out with friends or family, wherever possible try and make a destination with blue space the meeting point for social gatherings.
4. Invest in home water features. The sound of water is meditative and can really help soothe an overactive brain.
5. Take your time when you bathe or shower. Immersion in water reduces stress by easing both physical and mental tension. In Japan, bathing to cleanse and refresh the body is a ritual not to be rushed!
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