Repeated acute exposure to blue spaces - areas that summarize all visible surface waters, such as beaches, fountains, rivers, lakes, marinas, and waterfront parks – is found to have a positive effect on well-being and mood of people. This is according to a new study, which appeared in the journal Environmental Research.
Mental health benefits of short walks in a blue space environment
Authors Cristina Vert from Pompeu Fabra University in Spain and team detail that blue spaces not only benefit mental health but also promote physical activity. For their study, a total of 59 healthy adult office workers were randomly assigned to a different environment four days each week for three weeks. These environments include a control site, an urban site, and a blue space. For 20 minutes a day, study subjects either walked in an urban space or blue space or just rested in a control site.
Before, during, and after the environmental exposure, the researchers measured the self-reported mood and wellbeing of the subject office workers. Their heart variability parameters and blood pressure were also included in the analysis. For well-being, the team likewise assessed the duration of the potential effects overtime, which is at least four hours after the environmental exposure.
The blue space route for their study was along a beach in Barcelona, Spain. The urban space, on the other hand, was along the city streets.
Improved well-being and mood responses
The result of the study shows that the mood responses and well-being of the office workers significantly improved immediately after they walked in the blue space compared to the times they walked in the urban space or when they were just resting in a control site. Their cardiovascular responses further indicate increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system during and after walking along with urban and blue spaces.
Corresponding author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, who is also the Director of the Urban Planning, Environment, and Health Initiative at ISGlobal, told Medical Xpress that after participants walked on the beach, their mental health, vitality, and mood improved. The team, however, did not find cardiovascular health benefits in being exposed to blue space. They believe that it could be because of the design of their study. That is, they assessed the immediate effects of taking a short walk in a blue space. Lead author Cristina Vert opined that long-lasting and continuous exposure to blue spaces may have positive effects on cardiovascular health, too.
Vert went on to say that their findings highlight that the psychological benefits of physical activity vary depending on the type of environment where it is being carried out. For instance, taking a walk in a blue space is better than in an urban space.
Previous ISGlobal studies have also pointed out the health benefits linked with green spaces. These benefits include better attention capacities, the slower physical decline among older adults, and lower risk of obesity. For the recent study, it provides evidence that blue spaces are an environment that is favorable to mental health.
Nieuwenhuijsen added that 55% of the global population is now living in cities, citing the statistics provided by the United Nations. Thus, he considers it “crucial” to determine and enhance the elements that will improve our health. For instance, we can find out blue spaces so authorities can also create more livable, more sustainable, and healthier cities.
How blue space heals
In a 2019 study titled "Blue Space: How Being Near Water Benefits Health" that appeared in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies, the author also mentioned that many people experience peaceful and calm feelings when spending time or approaching near natural sources of water. Blue spaces are venues for recreation, like fishing, picnics, and swimming, author Jane Hart, MD wrote. It reduces stress and anxiety through the promotion of social connection. She also mentioned blue space interventions (BSI), which are pre-designed programs or activities in a natural water setting. It targets individuals to manage their illness and help restore or promote health and wellbeing.
Previous studies theorized that there is a direct health benefit from blue spaces as well. For instance, during a hot climate, water can reduce heat stress in the environment. Fountains can cool areas and lessen the stress caused by the cityscape.
Daily step averages: statistics
Of the countries analyzed by database company Statista, Hong Kong was found to have the highest average daily step counts in 2017 with 6,880. It is followed by China, which took an average of 6,189 steps per day, Russia (5,969), South Korea (5,755), UK (5,444), Italy (5,296), Hungary (5,258), Germany (5,205), Chile (5,204), France (5,141), Turkey (5,057), Israel (5,033), Australia (4,941), United States (4,774), Portugal (4,744), United Arab Emirates (4,516), Greece (4,350), South Africa (4,105), Saudi Arabia (3,807), and Indonesia (3,513).
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 42% of all adults in the US get enough aerobic physical activity that is enough to improve their health. Furthermore, more than 145 million US adults now include walking as part of a physically active lifestyle. More than six in ten people walk for fun, transportation, exercise, relaxation, or for activities, like walking their dog.
Designing a walkable community
Since more people walk to get to places that they want to go when places are nearby, the CDC recommends designing a walkable community. A well-maintained and well-designed pedestrian circulation system can encourage the public to be less automobile-dependent and more active. The basic components of a walkable community include having shared-use paths, sidewalks, open spaces, and trails that continuously link to create a connected network. As of February 2020, the most walkable US cities are New York with 88.3 walkable scores, San Francisco (87.4), Boston (82), Philadelphia (78.8), and Miami (77.6). The rankings are from real estate brokerage Redfin, which rates the walkability of cities, addresses, and neighborhoods. A walkability score of 90 to 100 means the place is a “Walker’s Paradise” or where daily errands do not need a car. A score of 70 to 89 means that the places are very walkable as most errands can be accomplished on foot.
Now that we know the happiness boost that comes from taking short, frequent walks near blue spaces, it is perhaps ideal for doctors to start issuing nature-based prescriptions and public health officials to integrate blue spaces into cities as an effective public health strategy to improve people’s health.