In an increasingly urbanized world, we know the importance of connecting with nature and its associated health benefits. The impact of green spaces, e.g., parks, gardens, and forests, is well known and established in academic circles. But what about the blue spaces that cover 71 percent of our planet?
You may feel inclined to think that all outdoor spaces have the same influence on our bodies and minds, that one isn’t necessarily better than the other, but research shows that just being near aquatic environments may have the most profound impact.
Let’s dive into these spaces and learn how to reap the benefits of surrounding yourself with blue—even if you don’t live near the water.
Blue Spaces Explained
From babbling brooks and roaring rivers to coastal seas and vast oceans, blue spaces are outdoor areas covered by natural bodies of water easily accessible to people. Whether fully immersed, or viewing from the comfort of home, simply being in the same vicinity of these spaces benefits our health in ways that can only be explained by our evolutionary past.
“We as a species have a deep-rooted connection to water as we spent most of our evolutionary past alongside it,” says environmental psychologist Dr. Mathew White during an episode of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast Chasing Life. “This gives us a kind of hard-wiring appreciation for these spaces.”
Perhaps you’ve intuitively felt what Dr. White puts to words as your shoulders relax while listening to the sea’s crashing waves or as your mind calms when admiring an ever-changing stream. Whether realized or not, we as humans have a strong affinity for water recognized by its healing effects on our mental and physical health.
The Health Connection
From ancient Roman bathhouses to Japanese hot springs, humans have used water as a therapy long before the science was there to back it up. But what exactly is health-enabling about blue spaces?
1. Blue spaces are a multi-sensory environment
The sound of crashing waves. The smell of ocean air. The visuals of an ever-changing sea.
The beach is just one example of how blue spaces capture our senses at every level, calming our minds and empowering us to tune in to the natural environment surrounding us.
“Proximity to coastal areas provides more opportunity for restorative experiences and reduces the ‘noise’ in people’s minds — even more so than green spaces,” says United Kingdom’s Environmental Agency. And consequently, “those who live within a kilometer of a natural body of water are less likely to feel anxious or depressed.”
Moreover, because blue spaces are multi-sensory, they draw us in, enabling mindfulness, i.e., being present in the moment, a practice that’s hard to live by when residing in urban areas.
2. Blue spaces promote physical activity, lower disease risk, and reduce chronic pain
We all know the importance of physical activity and staying fit for our health and well-being, but in the vicinity of blue spaces we’re more likely to move our bodies in ways we normally wouldn’t.
From running and walking to swimming and surfing, water encourages all kinds of exercise, and it’s activities like these—in or near blue spaces—that growing research shows reduces several mental and physical ailments, such as:
- Stress and anxiety
- High blood pressure
- Depression and grief
- Heart disease
- Trauma and PTSD
- Ulcerative colitis
Imagine your doctor hands you a prescription to visit the beach and sit by the water as a treatment for your anxiety and recurring stomach ulcers rather than medication. A future like this may be more likely than you think as a new area of healthcare is emerging called blue care, which takes inspiration from the above research.
3. Blue spaces foster human connection
From creativity and play to feelings of awe and empathy, aquatic environments help foster the qualities that make us innately human, serving as spaces for us to come together, socialize, and build community.
According to the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning, “social interaction and its associated psychological effects were the most important benefits” for those congregating in blue spaces; another study also found coastal and marine areas to be the happiest locations when compared to urban environments.
How to Harness Blue Spaces
While blue spaces are available to the public, not everyone may have direct access. In fact, only 40% of the U.S. population live in coastal areas. But according to Catherine Kelly, author of Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better, you don’t have to live near a natural body of water to reap the benefits.
“There’s being in it, next to it, and even just thinking about it,” she says. “You can experience the same positive effects from urban fountains, raindrops, and even your shower.”
If blue spaces aren’t available to you for whatever reason, you can still benefit by:
- Watching videos of aquatic environments—Similar to how looking at pictures of green spaces reduces stress, so does watching movies of marine environments. A quick Youtube search will reveal countless videos of the ocean, as well as live aquarium feeds.
- Taking a cold shower—Cold water stimulates the vagus nerve, i.e., a cranial nerve extending from the brainstem and down to the abdomen, triggering an anti-inflammatory response that reduces feelings of anxiety and depression.
- Bathing—Immersing yourself in hot water can ease sore joints and muscles. Moreover, the beauty of baths is that you can customize the experience to your liking, e.g., temperature, lighting, music, and even aroma. Scents like lavender and peppermint are especially relaxing.
- Embracing the rain—Listening to the sound of rain or watching raindrops fall from the sky has similar therapeutic effects to the natural ebb and flow of bodies of water.
Conserve the Blue
Humans have been intimately connected to the natural world since the dawn of mankind. But with climate change accelerating, conserving these environments—blue spaces especially—should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“Research on the impact of blue spaces is vital to convincing governments to protect and encourage the use of coastal spaces,” says Dr. White. “We need to help policymakers understand how to maximize the benefits of blue spaces while ensuring access is fair, inclusive, and free from damage.”
Just as our health and well-being are influenced by these spaces, we have an influence on them too. As stewards of the land it’s our responsibility to protect and maintain the biodiversity of blue spaces for—not just our health—but for the health of our planet and future generations. In other words, when we take care of blue spaces, blue spaces take care of us.
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