New Zealanders have an affinity to water that’s hard to match with any other country in the world. In New Zealand we are very lucky to live in a country where we are never more than a couple of hours away from water, whether it be a beach, lake, or river.
Turns out that living by water might actually be benefiting our health! It seems that we have always sort of known this as Victorian doctors used to prescribe the “sea air” as a cure for an assortment of aches and ailments. Nowadays, there is ample research to suggest that living by water can offer a sense of calm and healing, reduce stress levels, and may also help to lower the risk of mental health conditions.
Unsurprisingly, a move closer to the ocean is often on the mind of those looking to retire which has seen the rise of places like the Bay of Plenty become a retirement hot-spot for older adults.
Why “Blue Spaces”?
Professor Michael Depledge and his team, including environmental psychologist Mat White, looked at the effect a variety of photographs that included “blue space” had on stress. This was an adaptation of one of Roger Ulrich’s early studies. By showing photographs of a variety of landscapes to a group of participants, Ulrich was able to demonstrate that stress levels were lowered according to how much greenery was in the picture. The difference this time was that, “we started introducing water into the images”, says Depledge, “going from a pond right through to a coastline, with increasing amounts of water in the images, and we found that people showed a strong preference for more and more water in the images.
“We repeated that with urban scenes, from fountains in squares to canals running through the city, and once again people hugely preferred the urban environments with more water in them.” Images with green space received a postive response, as Ulrich has found. But images with both green and blue got the most favourable response of all.
This was enough to suggest that they might be on to something and their next study, published in September, was more conclusive. Using data from Natural England with anonymous self-reported health information by postcode, a team from ECEHH were able to see if health varied according to proximity to water. “Self-reported health correlates very well with real health,” says Depledge. “For the first time, we have had this information according to postcode, and we found that the closer you live to the English coast the healthier you are. There was some evidence that other aquatic environments helped too.”
All of which prompts the question, why? Just what is it about water that attracts us in such a way that could improve our mental wellbeing and even our physical health? “The simple answer, is we don’t know,” says Depledge, “but we are trying to find out.”
“There are all sorts of intriguing possibilities. One is that human beings have evolved in intimate contact with nature, and it is only really in the last 200 years that people have been increasingly removed from nature. Professor Sir Alister Hardy first suggested that the big step in human evolution was not necessarily when hominids came out of the trees and into the savannah, but was when they got to the coast and were able to access sea food rich in omega 3 fatty acids … there is something deeply profound about water and humans, and it may reflect evolutionary history.”
It’s time to head to the beach!