Most of us have experienced the unique sensation of peace you get from being by the sea. Standing in front of a vast body of water can put things into perspective; listening to the crash of the waves and feeling the wind on our skin can make us feel connected to nature.

But this isn’t just a sense or a feeling – because the idea that the sea can boost emotional wellbeing is now scientific fact.

Multiple studies show that natural water-based environments can have a powerful effect on both our physical and mental health.

In fact, these so-called ‘blue spaces’ are so healing and restorative that experts suggest that more watery spaces be created in urban areas and doctors are now prescribing ‘blue therapy’.

So, let’s take a closer look at how – and why – blue spaces can improve our health.

The science behind blue spaces

The science behind blue spaces

The idea that the sea might be healing isn’t new. Back in Victorian times, doctors used to prescribe ‘sea air’ as a cure for all kinds of major diseases.

The fresh air and ocean views were seen as essential to a patient’s recovery – particularly for treating diseases like tuberculosis – and the belief that the sea had medicinal benefits was partly responsible for the rise in British sea resorts.

In more recent years, the focus has been on the benefits of ‘green spaces’, with more and more burnt-out urban residents seeking peace in rural surroundings.

The calming effects of being among nature have been widely studied, and today, it’s well-known that going for a country walk, relaxing in woodland, and adding plants to your home is good for us.

But, 10 years ago a comprehensive study involving more than 20,000 participants found that people were by far the happiest when they were in blue spaces, not green – and multiple newer studies back up this conclusion.

2020 study found that being close to blue spaces can improve mood, and systematic reviews and meta-analyses show that they can reduce stress and anxiety too.

But the benefits are not purely psychological. In 2021, researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University found that spending time in blue spaces can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.

So, what exactly is it about blue spaces that can be so healing – not just for our minds, but for our bodies too?

The importance of natural environments

The importance of natural environments

First, it’s important to consider that some of the benefits of blue spaces are also shared with green spaces.

Living close to the water, particularly the sea, is linked to numerous positive measures of physical and mental wellbeing, from improved relationships to higher levels of vitamin D.

One reason for this is that both coastal and rural environments tend to have less polluted air and more sunlight; the latter of which can have a major effect on mood and wellbeing.

There’s also the fact that human beings are meant to be around nature. It’s only in recent years that humans have become a majority-urban species, and for hundreds of thousands of years we lived in forests and grasslands, beside rivers, lakes, and the sea.

As our connection to nature has dwindled, the prevalence of mental health disorders has rocketed. Plus, more and more evidence shows that human health, both physical and mental, is intrinsically connected to nature – and even the simple act of looking at images of natural surroundings can have a positive impact on brain activity, blood pressure, blood flow, and cortisol levels.

However, while being in both blue and green spaces is good for us, new evidence suggests blue is better. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 65% of people find being close to water boosts their mood and mental wellbeing – and there are specific reasons for this.

The power of water

The power of water

The reason that blue spaces have an edge over green spaces is because of the water itself. The rhythm and movement of water has an almost meditative quality to it, and watching the waves lap the shore or a river stream downhill can have a psychologically restorative effect. It can create a powerful sense of peace and calm – feelings that we then carry with us for the rest of the day.

Even the sound of water has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. There are two main kinds of attention: directed attention, which is when we’re focusing intensely on something, and non-directed, which is the involuntary attention we give to far-off noises or passing clouds. The sound of water stimulates our non-directed attention, which allows our busy minds to rest.

The noise of water, whether it’s the sound of waves crashing to the shore, the rush of river currents, or the drumming of raindrops, is classified as ‘pink noise’. It shares some similarities to white noise, in that it comprises all the sound frequencies audible to the human ear, but it’s quieter at the higher frequencies. Just like white noise, pink noise can also improve sleep and memory.

And, finally, water has another advantage that you can’t get from spending time in a green space. Water-based activities like swimming, snorkelling, diving, or surfing create feelings of environmental attunement – the sense of feeling as though you’re part of the environment. So, when you actually enter the water itself, its healing properties can become even more pronounced.

Prescribing blue therapy

Prescribing blue therapy

Research shows that spending time in blue spaces can improve mental wellbeing so significantly that some doctors have begun prescribing ‘blue therapy’.

One example of this is the Blue Prescribing scheme, which is run by the charitable organisation Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation  (MHF).

As part of the scheme, six-week blue therapy courses are prescribed to single parents, long-covid sufferers, and people suffering from chronic health conditions or poor mental health. Participants are invited to spend time at the WWT’s London Wetland Centre, where they go for guided walks and take time to appreciate their surroundings and spot wildlife.

Participants report that being in this particular blue space clears their minds and stops them from thinking about what’s worrying them, and they leave “feeling light-hearted and refreshed.”

The economic benefits of blue therapy have also been obvious, as research has shown that for every pound that the WWT has spent on blue therapy, the participants retained £9.30 of ‘social value’.

The benefits of WWT’s blue therapy are so clear that the University of Exeter is working with WWT and MHF’s blue prescribing team to begin a full clinical trial over the next few years. The trials would evaluate blue spaces as a treatment in the same way that medicines are assessed.

Experts believe blue spaces won’t only be shown to treat health problems, but to stop them from appearing in the first place.

How to get the most out of blue spaces

How to get the most out of blue spaces

So what does this mean for us and how can we utilise blue spaces to improve our health?

As beneficial as being close to the water may be, not all of us are lucky enough to live by the coast, and most of us don’t have lakeside homes with waterfront views. But the good news is that you don’t actually need to live in a blue space to reap its benefits.

Psychologist Laura Lee says that just the act of planning a break by the water, whether it’s camping by a lake or booking a beach hotel, can lift your mood. She says, “That can be hugely beneficial, because you get the benefits of looking forward to the holiday as well as the actual time there.”

If you live in a city, there are probably many small ways you can enjoy the benefits of blue spaces without leaving town. While the sea may be the most therapeutic form of blue space, it’s not the only one. Rivers, lakes, canals, waterfalls, and even fountains count as blue spaces, as long as they’re aesthetically pleasing. Large bodies of water are best, but research suggests that any water is better than none.

Most landlocked cities are built around bodies of water like rivers or canals, yet many of us take our town’s water features for granted.

It can help to try looking at your home town through new eyes. For example, you could pretend you’re a tourist for a day and go for a walk along the river or canal, paying extra attention to what you can see, hear, and smell. This might be the light glinting on the water, the chirp of birds overhead, or the scent of flowers in the air.

More good news is that councils are fast waking up to the benefits of blue spaces, and many are doing what they can do to create more blue spaces in urban areas, from regenerating canals to building fountains. In Plymouth, for example, small changes like adding paths along rivers and building seating areas looking out on the water were found to help boost community mood.

Alternatively, perhaps you could make time each week to escape to a blue space near you, even if it’s just for an hour or two. The great thing about living on an island like the UK is that nowhere in the country is more than 70 miles from the coast – so no matter where you live, it shouldn’t be too difficult to head out to the sea.

Final thoughts…

While the healing power of the sea has long been in human consciousness, scientific research has made it impossible to ignore the therapeutic benefits of the ocean – and water in general.

There’s something about natural bodies of water that captures the imagination and interrupts the busy momentum of daily life, making us feel calm and rejuvenated.

So, the next time you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed, why not take some time for yourself and head out to the coast? At the very least, you’ll get a change of scenery and enjoy some invigorating sea air – and hopefully, you might return home with a whole different mindset…and a healthy new mechanism for dealing with stress.

For further reading, head over to the healthy mind section of our website. Here, you’ll find articles like 11 ways to detox your mind and 10 everyday activities that can help you stay in the present moment.

Are you already a believer in blue therapy? Has this article inspired you to spend more time in blue spaces – or do you have any additional thoughts you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.