Being in blue spaces – the science

We’re familiar with the term ‘green space’, and how it does us good (see my blog here for the key research that suggests how being around trees and fields is good for us).  But you may be less familiar with the term blue space.

Well, in the same way that green space means being surrounded by green things, being in blue space means being surrounded by blue things, so that’s water and aquatic environments such as the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and so on.

And there’s a wealth of evidence that being in blue space is as good for us as being in green space.

Does living near the sea or beach reduce the risks of physical and mental health issues?  If so, how? 

A range of studies have shown that living near blue space, that’s the water/ocean equivalent of green space, has a significant impact on improving our mental health and wellbeing, reducing anxiety and depression and elevating our mood.  One of the most recent studies, from Exeter University in 2019 of 26,000 people, found living 1km from the sea were 22% less likely to have symptoms of a mental health disorder compared to those who lived 50km away.

A 2001 study found that census records of 48 million Britons showed health benefits for those living near the sea.

There are a range of factors that are suggested to be the cause of this, such as reduced stress, improved air quality and immune functioning, and increased opportunities for social contact and physical activity that green/blue spaces provide.

Why does open water often make us feel more calm? 

Of particular interest in blue space is the calming effect sound of the sea.  Studies have shown that waves have the ideal blend of ‘white noise’ that produces a relaxing effect on our brains.  As the brain has a pattern recognition system designed solely for spotting danger and being on alert when presented with the meaningless of white noise it appears to just calm down a bit as it recognises there is ‘nothing to see here’.

It’s also been suggested that the flat spaciousness of the ocean is calming for us as it reminds the more primitive parts of our brains that this is a safe place.  This is because flat surfaces, like oceans and plains, make it easy to spot danger at a great distance, and take evasive action, which is not that easy in dense jungle or built-up areas.

Living near the beach encourages more physical activity.  Is there a link between this and mental health? 

Yes there are strong links between exercise and a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well, of course, as the benefits to physical health. There is some interesting research that shows that exercise also is one of the biggest factors in reducing loss of brain cells as we get older, keeping us mentally sharp and also that ‘wild’ swimming in the cold waters of the ocean and lakes has numerous health benefits for our brain and heart health and our supports good immune system function

  1. Joanne K. Garrett, Theodore J. Clitherow, Mathew P. White, Benedict W. Wheeler, Lora E. Fleming. Coastal proximity and mental health among urban adults in England: The moderating effect of household incomeHealth & Place, 2019; 102200 DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2019.102200
  2. Benedict W. Wheeler, Mathew White, Will Stahl-Timmins, Michael H. Depledge. Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? Health & Place, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2012.06.015

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