Think about what you encounter when you walk along the beach: The soothing sound of waves crashing into the shore. Sea birds darting back and forth. A comforting ocean breeze and the salty smell of the surf. The sun’s light glimmering off the sand and water.
Congratulations! You’ve just imagined “blue space,” the kind of environment that studies show can improve your mental and physical health.
Here’s the exciting proof. . .
There are good reasons why people vacation at the beach or prefer living in a home facing the ocean or a lake. These kinds of locations aren’t just pretty to look at, they’re relaxing. But why?
Researchers now believe that looking at the ocean, a lake or even a river offers therapeutic benefits that improve your mental and emotional well-being. According to researchers at Michigan State University, experiencing this “blue space” reduces stress levels resulting in a number of health benefits.
Choose a Room with a View for a Sharper You
In the MSU study, scientists analyzed the health and mental wellness of the population of Wellington, New Zealand, a city that has the Tasman Sea to its north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. For this investigation, the researchers analyzed people’s psychological stress by sifting through data from the New Zealand Health Survey, a national survey that compiles the country’s public health information.
After accounting for other factors that can affect emotional stability, they found that folks who enjoyed views of the ocean were less vulnerable to mood and anxiety disorders.1
“Increased views of blue space is significantly associated with lower levels of psychological distress,” says researcher Amber L. Pearson.
This is great news for your emotional well-being, but also for your memory. Harvard Medical School has reported on numerous studies showing high levels of stress and anxiety block your ability to retrieve memories.2 One reason, researchers say, might be because stress and anxiety trigger inflammation in the brain. So if you can get stress and anxiety under control, you’re protecting against memory loss for years to come.
A second study in Hong Kong confirms the benefits of “blue space” to your overall health. In this analysis, conducted by researchers based in both Hong Kong and England, researchers demonstrated that people who can see the water from their homes enjoy better health than those blocked from an ocean view.
Plus, the study shows that regularly visiting the shoreline gives rise to a higher level of perceived well-being and a lower risk of depression.3 To me, the research begs the question, if people have the resources to live in a home with a water view— or visit the water frequently— perhaps they also have the resources to practice better self-care to prevent or manage emotional challenges. Additional research bears my theory out…
According to researchers at the University of Exeter in England, one reason living on— or even near— a coastline is good for your health stems from the fact that it’s conducive to extra physical activity. Being close to the water motivates people to walk, swim and run. And the increased exercise improves both physical and mental health.4
“Blue space” might also help you live longer. A study in Canada discovered that people living near large natural bodies of water enjoyed a ten percent lower risk of dying during the ten years of the research.5
Is Lack of Blue Space a Public Health Crisis?
In the view of researchers in the U.S. and Europe who have studied how our modern lifestyles influence our wellness, many of us fall victim to a “paleo-deficit disorder.”6 They explain that because we spend so much of our lives in a man-made environment, we’re increasingly cut off from the natural environment in which our ancestors lived for thousands of years. Consequently, there’s a “toll to be paid in the form of higher psychological distress (…anxiety and depression).”
In fact, the researchers who performed one of the “blue space” studies believe blue spaces are so important for city dwellers that they should be considered “public health resources.”
They urge people living in cities “to optimize the potential benefits of experiencing their natural water environment.”
By spending time in blue space – as well as in the green space of wooded areas – you’ll help supply the soothing nature-based inputs that support our emotional and mental stability.
I agree with this completely. Some years ago, I decided to move out of the “city” and into the countryside. I’ve found the wooded areas around my home—and the birds, animals and flowers in them— bring a peace and joy that I didn’t find so readily when I was living in an urban environment.
New research shows there’s even a scientific reason why we country folks might feel this way. Scientists in Japan say flora found in areas rich in vegetation give off substances called phytoncides that collect in the nearby air.
Phytoncides are natural substances released by plants to discourage insects and pathogens from attacking them. Lab tests indicate that when you inhale these natural chemicals in an outdoor setting, they may boost immunity, decrease stress, increase relaxation, decrease anxiety and even help you sleep better.7 I can’t think of any drug that can do all of these things at once!
So, the next time you get the urge to go to the beach, walk a woodland trail, or even visit a botanical garden or tree-filled park near your home – give in to that urge! You’re not just enjoying some time in the beautiful outdoors, you’re keeping your body—and your brain—happy and healthy.