The surprising benefits of blue spaces

Ten years after researchers first found that “blue spaces” could be good for us, the concept is proving to be a powerful, practical tool for mental health.

Amidst the gentle rock of the sea, the breeze tickling their skin and the distant caw of seagulls, six people in lifejackets close their eyes for a “mindful check-in”. They are aboard the deck of Irene, a 120ft (37m) tall ship with timber frames and majestic sails which is cruising off the coast of Cornwall in the UK.

These kind of mindfulness exercises have become increasingly mainstream in the last decade, but they tend to be practised from the comfort of the home or a therapist’s office – not the deck of a ship.

However, UK charity Sea Sanctuary, which operates Irene, believes its combination of marine activities and therapy provides a uniquely beneficial form of mental health support. A practitioner of “blue health” – the concept that being in or near blue spaces such as rivers, lakes and the sea boosts our emotional wellbeing – the charity has been organising trips around the Cornwall coastline since 2006.

You see a marked change while people are on board and it’s brilliant to know that people can take that home with them – Andy Thornton

Many of the charity’s client sailors, largely people who experience anxiety and depression, sign up to a voyage to benefit from sessions with the ship’s therapist while also learning a new skill. They can be referred by charities and social workers or enrol themselves.

Steve Ridholls, a former police officer, is sailing with Sea Sanctuary to calm the anxiety and PTSD he battles.

“I used to talk people down from cliffs and bridges or respond to suicides and car crashes,” he says. “I saw things my mind can’t unsee. Much of my PTSD came from helplessness – when you witness something you can’t do anything about.”

In 2014, Ridholls was signed off from the police force on mental health grounds. Now, he spends most days hugging the shoreline on his 16ft (5m) ­­­red canoe, paddling along Cornwall’s rivers, estuaries and bays. The ocean calms his mind – and, he believes, plays a key part in his recovery.

When Homo sapiens first evolved some 300,000 years ago, we lived in grasslands and forests, next to lakes and rivers. It wasn’t until 2007 that we became a majority-urban species. But as urbanisation increases, our access to nature continues to dwindle.

The loss of human-nature interaction has been linked to a rising tide of mental health disorders. A growing body of evidence indicates that human health, both mental and physical, is intrinsically linked to nature.

Just looking at natural scenery has been found to cause rapid beneficial psychological and physiological changes in salivary cortisol, blood flow, blood pressure and brain activity. Meanwhile, contact with microbes in the environment can train our immune systems, reinforcing the good microbial communities on our skin and in our airways and guts.

[People] love the sound of running water, having a reflective space to quietly sit, a place to clear your head away from the busy-ness of daily life – Niamh Smith

But many experts now believe blue spaces, such as lakes and rivers, could be even more beneficial than green ones.

“Blue spaces provide us with distractions that take our mind away from the day-to-day hassles of life,” says Kate Campbell, a health psychology researcher at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “The sound of the crashing waves, the smell of salty air, the crunching of sand beneath our toes…The sensations relax our bodies and tell our minds to switch off.”

Campbell believes humans have “an innate predisposition” towards natural environments that once benefitted us as an evolving species. Natural spaces that provided pre-modern humans with food, comfort and safety are likely to provide a similar sense of ease even in today’s urban world. Spending time in blue spaces, says Campbell, can feel like “returning home”.

The concept of blue health emerged almost 10 years ago when researchers at the University of Sussex asked 20,000 people to record their feelings at random times. They collected over a million responses and found that people were by far the happiest when they were in blue spaces.

More recently, experts from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) have found that spending time in blue spaces lowers the risk of stress, anxiety, obesity, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

Niamh Smith, a researcher at GCU and co-author of the study, says the team found an impact on both mental and general health from spending time in blue spaces. The research also linked time spent in blue space to a reduction in body mass index (BMI) and a lower risk of mortality.

“People really value the therapeutic space,” says Smith. “They love the sound of running water, having a reflective space to quietly sit, a place to clear your head away from the busy-ness of daily life.

“We know there are four main ways that blue spaces benefit health – through physical activity, stress reduction, providing a space for socialisation [and finally the] environmental factors that have a knock on impact on our health. For example, if a river is tree-lined, you have shade.”

In fact, blue spaces are so good for your health they can be now prescribed by your doctor.

Blue prescribing

“My depression comes in cycles,” says Harune Akthar, speaking from his West London home.

Around ten years ago, the 27-year-old was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, ADHD, depression and anxiety.

“When I had a bad day, it would take three to four days for me to come out of it,” he says. “I slept and ignored everyone including my family – and I love my family. I wouldn’t eat. You’d rarely see me.”

For years, Akthar tried a range of different therapies but didn’t find any that helped him. Then, in June this year, his doctor referred him to the Blue Prescribing scheme run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), a charity.

After the first day, he didn’t think it was for him. By the end of the second, he couldn’t wait to go back.

Single parents, long-Covid sufferers and those with chronic conditions or poor mental health are among those who are eligible for the six-week programme, delivered at the WWT’s London Wetland Centre.     

Once a week, participants go for guided walks in the wetlands. They also do sensory engagement activities – birdwatching, clay modelling, herbal tea tasting or creating “scent cocktails”.

According to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), partners of WWT, 65% of people find being near water improves their mental wellbeing.

“When people consider what constitutes a psychologically restorative environment, they frequently report a preference for blue space,” says Jonathan Reeves, a WWT health and wellbeing researcher. Watery environments, says Reeves, are less cognitively demanding than the everyday sights and sounds of our busy lives – and allow for “soft fascination”. “Think how easy it is to watch ripples in the water,” he says.

Even the sound of water can be enough to reduce stress in people

Akthar says being by the water has allowed his mind “to pan out, to rest”. “Now, when I feel down, I know to take a step back, breathe. Instead of having four days in my bed, I have one or two. It’s amazing.”

This year, the University of Exeter is working with WWT and MHF’s blue prescribing team to lead a feasibility study that – if successful – will lead to a full clinical trial on nature prescribing over the next few years. The trials would evaluate nature as a treatment in the same way as medicines are assessed.

Reeves says a medical focus on blue spaces could also help prevent health problems in the first place.

“Our health systems are overwhelmingly biased towards treating problems when they arise,” he says. “We should be spending more on preventative solutions and health promotion. In improving our blue spaces, the benefits would be felt in not only health but also the climate crisis, urban liveability, flooding, water quality, biodiversity and community cohesion.”