But many experts now believe that blue spaces, such as lakes and rivers, could be even more beneficial than green spaces.
“Blue spaces provide us with distractions that take our minds away from the hassles of everyday life,” says Kate Campbell, a health psychology researcher at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. “The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salty air, the crunch of sand under our toes… The sensations relax our bodies and tell our minds to switch off.”
Campbell believes humans have an “innate predisposition” toward natural environments that once benefited us as an evolving species. The natural spaces that provided pre-modern humans with food, comfort and security are likely to provide a similar sense of well-being even in today’s urban world. Spending time in blue spaces, Campbell says, can feel like “coming home.”
The concept of blue health emerged nearly 10 years ago when researchers at the University of Sussex asked 20,000 people to record their feelings at random times. They collected over a million responses and found that people were by far the happiest when they were in blue spaces.
More recently, experts from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) found that spending time in blue spaces reduced the risk of stress, anxiety, obesity, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
Niamh Smith, a researcher at GCU and co-author of the study, says the team saw an impact on mental and general health by spending time in blue spaces. Research has also linked time spent in blue space to reduced body mass index (BMI) and lower mortality risk.
“People really appreciate the therapeutic space,” Smith says. “They love the sound of running water, having a reflective space to sit quietly, a place to clear their heads away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
“We know that blue spaces benefit health in four main ways: through physical activity, reducing stress, creating space for socializing. [and finally the] environmental factors that impact our health. For example, if a river is lined with trees, you have shade.”
In fact, blue spaces are so good for your health that they can now be prescribed by your doctor.
“My depression comes in cycles,” says Harune Akthar, speaking from her west London home.
About ten years ago, the 27-year-old was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, ADHD, depression and anxiety.
“When I had a bad day, it took me three to four days to get through it,” he says. “I slept and ignored everyone, including my family – and I love my family. I wouldn’t eat. You would rarely see me.”
For years, Akthar tried a range of different therapies, but found none that helped him. Then, in June this year, his doctor referred him to the Blue Prescription scheme run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), a charity.
After the first day, he didn’t think it was for him. At the end of the second, he was eager to go back.