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Blue Health: The Water-Based Approach to Mental Wellness

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

I live on a houseboat. I just moved in this month – it is a Catamaran Cruiser SE35 docked on Jamaica Bay in South Brooklyn. From my bedroom, I can take three steps and hop into the Atlantic Ocean. Everywhere I am on my boathouse, I can see and hear water. I’ve started taking daily polar plunges, immersing myself in the freezing cold seawater for a few minutes each morning to stimulate circulation and boost my adrenaline and mood.

A big motivator for this move was my belief that being near water would soothe my mental and emotional states. My whole life, I’ve struggled with mental illness. Depression and anxiety are daily struggles for me. I have learned from experience that being in or near bodies of water brings me relief emotionally and mentally.

Apparently, by deciding to live on the water, I was tapping into the scientific discovery of “blue health” made 10 years ago at the University of Sussex. In this study, 20,000 people were asked to record their emotional state at random times. The results showed that by far people were happiest when they were in blue spaces. This led researchers to ask – just how important IS water to people’s health?

What Is a “Blue Space” and Why Is It Important?

In the last decade, more and more studies have proven the powerful effect blue spaces have on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing. A study conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University studied the effect of blue spaces on people’s physical activity, restoration, social interaction, and environmentalism. They found that blue spaces lower people’s stress, diminish obesity and cardiovascular disease, and can even prevent premature death.

But what exactly is a blue space? A blue space is any water source. It can be an ocean, lake, pond, even a water fountain. As urbanization grows, we are more and more removed from nature as well as from access to bodies of water – which takes its toll on our health because water is important for us.

Here are just a few ways water helps us.

Physical Activity: Being near water encourages us to get physical. Whether swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, or running in the waves, the movement of water and the variety of ways it can be enjoyed get us to be active – and we all know that exercise is a crucial part of wellbeing. Water helps us lower our stress levels, improve our cardiovascular health, and strengthen our muscles – to name just a few health benefits!

Activates Non-Directed Attention: Human beings have two forms of attention – directed and non-directed. Directed attention is when you are intensely concentrated on an activity, like driving a vehicle. Non-directed attention is the subconscious, automatic attention your brain gives to distant sounds or activity. The sound of water very gently stimulates our non-directed attention which actually helps the brain to rest. Two psychology professors, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, have termed this phenomenon “soft fascination.”

Social Engagement: It’s been found that water promotes healthy social interaction. Activities such as boating, picnicking, and swimming encourage people to come together. Also, by being near a larger body of water, we experience the feeling that we are a small entity in a larger world. This releases us from egocentricity and better allows us to connect with those around us and with ourselves.

How Is Blue Health Being Used Today?

Research has gotten us to the point where doctors can now prescribe blue space therapy to their patients. There are many incredible organizations utilizing blue health to assist people suffering from mental health issues, social isolation, and PTSD.

BlueHealth, a pan-European research project that concluded in 2020, has spent four years working with researchers, scientists, and policymakers across Europe to discover ways to design urban waterways and public blue spaces that could positively affect people’s wellbeing in urban settings. BlueHealth has created toolkits to help policymakers and cities promote blue spaces, created virtual reality experiences for those who cannot access blue spaces, and conducted workshops across Europe to spread awareness and show people how to utilize blue space. Their research and resources will be helping cities across the world utilize blue spaces for years to come.

Sea Sanctuary is a Cornish charity that has taken mental health therapy off land and onto the water. The organization provides marine education and blue space experiences on their two ships, Irene of Bridgwater and The ARC Wellbeing Hub. People can participate in individual or group therapy and enjoy activities such as yoga, kayaking, art classes, and power-boating –all directed and delivered by accredited therapists.

The Wave is a one-of-a-kind inland surfing destination near Bristol that provides surf therapy for inner-city individuals who feel displaced – be it religious groups, veterans, disabled, or troubled youth. They recently collaborated with Open Minds Active, an organization encouraging people to spend

time outdoors, to provide surfing opportunities for Muslim women in the UK. This was an extremely liberating experience for these women and has encouraged participants to find ways to access water more regularly.

For more resources on blue health, check out BBC’s Future Planet feature on blue spaces.



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