Why spending time near 'blue space' may be the boost your health and wellbeing needs

Researchers are discovering the health benefits of spending time near ‘blue space’.

By Sarah Marinos
Homes with sea views can add hundreds of thousands – and sometimes millions, to the property value in New Zealand.
Across the Tasman, homes overlooking Sydney Harbour command some of the highest real estate prices in Australia.
Around most of our coasts, waterfront properties and those within a short walk of the ocean with easy access to clean, sandy beaches, boating facilities and other water leisure activities, often demand higher prices than those in the suburbs or inner city.
But those homes may be worth much more than serious money.
Their closeness to the water and their sea views may be priceless in terms of boosting our physical and mental health. And it's all due to the 'blue space' effect.
The health benefits of spending time in 'green space', such as forests and parks, have been well documented.
In fact, the beneficial effects are so well recognised that New Zealand became one of the first countries in the world to start giving patients 'green prescriptions'.
The scripts, issued by health professionals, encourage people to get more physically active and help them develop a healthy eating and exercise plan.
Often that script recommends getting outdoors and into nature. But it seems that being in or around blue space in particular can also work wonders for our mind and body.
A growing number of studies are analysing the benefits of blue space, and evidence so far suggests that the more time we can spend near oceans, rivers or lakes, the more positive impacts we feel.
In Hong Kong last year, a study found spending time in and around the city's harbours, coastlines and beaches was linked to better health and wellbeing, especially for older men and women.
People with a view of the water or those who regularly visited blue spaces reported higher wellbeing and had a lower risk of depression.
This year, new research found that riverside parks in cities may also help improve health and wellbeing.
The study of a new park along the Besos river in Barcelona found nearly 6000 adults a day have been using the park since it was opened.
The Barcelona Institute for Global Health study believes this increase in physical activity along the river could prevent up to seven deaths and save 23 million euros in public health spending each year.
Here at home, Professor Simon Kingham has been looking at the impacts of sea views on mental health.
His research found that having higher levels of blue space visibility was associated with lower levels of psychological distress, such as anxiety.
"Essentially, the more sea that you could see from your home, the better your mental health," says Professor Kingham, director of the GeoHealth Laboratory at the University of Canterbury.
The research adjusted for different socio-economic status and still found that the more water people could see from their homes, the greater the reduction in mental health problems.
Professor Kingham says there are two mechanisms at work.
"If you live near water, that may encourage you to go to the water more and get more physical activity, which has health benefits and is the first mechanism. The second mechanism is around mental wellbeing and the idea that just having blue space or water around you is good for your mental wellbeing," he explains.
Associate Professor Hayley Christian is interested in health promotion and how people can be supported to be physically active in their environment.
She's a senior researcher and National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at the University of Western Australia. She believes natural blue spaces –including canals, ponds and creeks as well as rivers, lakes and the ocean – can be an effective and simple way of encouraging better health.
"The key to enjoying those health benefits is that it's natural. Unnatural blue spaces, like a backyard swimming pool, don't appear to have the same effect," she says.
"There is evidence that blue space helps with more physical activity and helps stress reduction, and we know that exposure to any natural environment has a restorative effect."
This has been called the biophilia hypothesis, which recognises the innate human need to have contact and connection with nature.
"Particularly with our hectic, busy lives where we spend a lot of our day sitting inside and in front of a screen, it's important to engage with nature," says Associate Professor Christian.
"Additionally, blue space has social aspects, which are important for better general health. It attracts other people so there are opportunities for social contact, too."
However, while the benefits of green and blue space continue to stack up, many world cities and suburbs are becoming increasingly populated.
The regions experiencing hot population growth, include the Auckland-Hamilton-Tauranga triangle and the Queenstown-Wanaka district.
Hamilton, our fourth largest city by population with the third smallest territorial authority has the highest population density of any region in New Zealand with about 1500 people per square kilometre.
Auckland has an urban population density of 1210 people per square kilometre.
But as populations increase and available spaces in cities and towns shrink, many developments are not building the kind of infrastructure that supports better health. This includes making room for blue spaces and optimising access to areas around coastlines, lakes, rivers, creeks and waterways.
"We need to be planning for blue and green spaces much better and making sure they are in urban environments," says Associate Professor Christian.
"We need to protect our blue spaces and put amenities around them."

How to reap the benefits of blue space

  • Make an effort to spend time near water. You don't have to live next to the beach to enjoy the blue space effect. "It's too early to say you need to spend X minutes a week near water. But good health practices recommend at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day," says Associate Professor Christian. Spend as much of that recommended time as possible being active around water.
  • Make blue space your time. "I take my dog to the beach on the weekend and that's my time to engage with the coastline," says Associate Professor Christian. "Take a book and read by the water or just sit and contemplate and be immersed in that blue space."
  • Consider travelling to work a different way – perhaps a route that provides some exposure to water views. "Can you pass a piece of open water, or perhaps a green space on your way to work?" asks Professor Kingham.
  • If you can't get to the water, there may be some benefit to listening to water. "You might be inside, but when you play the sound of waves crashing on a beach, how does that make you feel? This sound is often used in meditation and may have some positive impact without us having to be near water," says Associate Professor Christian.
  • When you're choosing your next weekend break or holiday, consider a destination where you can spend time next to natural water.
  • "Often people can lack the motivation to get out. If you know someone with a mental health problem, take them for a walk along the beach or by the river," says Professor Kingham. "I think it's the whole package that helps – the sound of water, the smell of the ocean, the view. And you're getting some exercise as you walk, too."
  • Make water part of family outings and social gatherings. "Have family time, meet relatives near a blue space, take children out to a park and watch the water, or have a birthday celebration in a blue space," suggests Associate Professor Christian.

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