We know being in nature and “green spaces” has beneficial effects both with our physical and mental health. However, “blue spaces,” those near water sources have an added serenity that contributes to our well-being. Studies find that living around both green and blue spaces can even decrease all-cause mortality.
Perhaps it’s because water is essential to all life, and in fact we are made up of 60% water. Therefore, whether I’m swimming across a pool or lake, walking near a babbling brook or soaking in a bath, science backs me up on the restorative effects of being near or in water.
Many scientific studies find that that being in or around blue spaces or water, promotes happiness, in many way. Those living in coastal regions, would probably agree, because why else would people continue to rebuild their homes on our coastlines, despite so many natural disasters, such as hurricanes?
I know water works for me too. I love floating or resting my head just below the water surface where my ears are submerged. There’s an instant calm that seems to drown out the noises, distractions, and all the stresses above the surface. The same feeling happens when I swim, which is one of my favorite activities. Whether it is swimming across Mirror Lake at my dad’s house in Lake Placid when I visit every August or even the repetitive laps in my pool during the summer months. It allows me to tune-out the world and turn inward focusing on my breathing and heart rate.
One study published in the journal Nature used data from 18 countries to find out what seem obvious; those who lived or spent time in or around blue spaces reported a higher positive feeling of wellbeing when compared to those living in urban environments. And in fact, spending recreational time in blue and green spaces in nature may be even more important than living near them. Perhaps, because we sometimes take for granted what is always around us. But that’s why the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) proposes that by 2030 states should provide universal access to safe, areas of blue and green space.
Another study published in Scientific reports, looked at how modifying urban blue space could affect disparities in mental health treatment according to socioeconomic differences in communities, citing a growing interest in using waterways, canals, lakes, ponds and coasts as tools to manage better mental health. This 10-year study suggests the need for more blue spaces because of the widening mental health treatment gap, which prevents two-thirds of people with mental health conditions access to treatment. In the conclusion, the authors wrote, “Our study suggests that increasing exposure to blue spaces through the development or regeneration of blue spaces could potentially be a powerful tool to reduce mental health inequalities in urban populations.”
But why is this the case? How does being near or recreating in water support mental health? There are many different reasons. First, aside from people usually being more physically active near aquatic environments, there is also the tendency to have less air pollution as well as less noise and light pollution, especially along coasts or lakes within forests and nature preserves. It can soothe your senses with the beautiful sights and rhythmic sounds of water running along a stream or waves crashing along the coast. And even the smell of sea air, is described as invigorating and/or calming.
Being in water can reduces outside distractions, but studies have even found it can also reduce our internal distractions, such chronic pain. Research shows that floating can promote relaxation. It can also lower stress, anxiety and even depression by reducing sensory input, it’s called flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy. And this study found it helped improve widespread pain as well as reduced pain intensity.
And all of this can result in internal reflection. Much like staring into a fire, watching waves on the ocean or ripples on a pond, help remind me there is still enormous beauty in the world around me. I think we all desperately need this, especially now we often forget the beauty and good still in the world, while listening to our 24-hour news cycles of natural disasters, wars, the pandemic and our inequitable economic woes.
I’ve always said the single greatest investment I’ve ever made when renovating my bathroom, was to buy my soaking bathtub. I fill it up, step in, and dunk my head just below the surface, floating, while it seems to wash away my worries of the day.