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Into The Blue

A day out in nature is wonderfully good for us.  But for the best benefits don’t opt for green space; head for the water, says Catherine de Lange.

In a research paper by Dr. Keon West, he states, “It was found that more participation in naturist activities predicted greater life satisfaction - a relationship that was mediated by more positive body image, and higher self-esteem.”  Add to that the exhilaration of being truly present in nature and you might just have a shortcut to feeling happier, healthier and more mindful in a matter of minutes. 

Catherine de Lange is magazine editor at New Scientist.  What follows is an edited extract from her book, Brain Power: Everything you need to know for a healthy, happy brain.  While Catherine doesn't expressly speak to the benefits of going naked, in the light of Dr. Keon West's study it can be reasonably deduced that adding that


dimension to Catherine's research will enhance her findings even more!

Whether it is a bracing sea breeze, the gentle lapping of waves or the glint of sunshine on a rippling surface, there is something deeply restorative about being in or near water.  The Victorians knew this, prescribing sea air as a treatment for melancholy.  So did the French, who, for centuries, sent people with ailments to natural springs.  Now scientists are catching up.

We recognise the benefits of being out in nature more keenly than ever these days.  Hundreds of studies that catalogue the positive effects are being translated into health policies and urban redevelopment projects that aim to nudge people into the great outdoors and, in doing so, alleviate many of the health burdens that accompany modern life.

But as we rush off to embrace the wilds, and the accompanying boost to our health and mental well-being, we might want to stop and consider exactly where we are heading.  While we are becoming increasingly preoccupied with spending time in green spaces, fresh research is showing that blue spaces - areas next to water - might give us even more benefits.



1. Wear a watch: the health benefits of time in nature kick in after about two hours a week, according to a study of almost twenty thousand people.  Any more than that was better still, up until five hours.  After this point, the benefits plateau.

2. Do it your way: it doesn't matter whether that time is spent all in one go or broken up into lots of little chunks during the week.  One study found that the shortest time to have an effect
was ten minutes - so make that the minimum.

3. Make a connection: the advantages of being outdoors are particularly strong if you feel connected to nature, so find ways to engage with it, whether that's watching the changing seasons, gardening, or spotting birds, trees and other wildlife.

4. Keep warm: the mental-health benefits apply not just in the summer but in winter too, when many of us need it most, so try to keep that connection going all year round.  Be naked if you can, but wear something if you need to.

5. Do it on your terms: people with mental-health conditions such as depression and anxiety feel better when they spend time in nature, but it has to be their choice (so nature ’prescriptions’
that are being given in several countries could backfire). When they felt social pressure to do it, they felt less happiness and more anxiety about the outing.

6. Quality over quantity: the specific qualities of green space seem to be more important than how big the space is.  Two qualities in particular have been shown to reduce stress: spaces that act as a refuge, and those that really feel like you are in nature.  Refuge tends to be defined as those spaces surrounded by bushes and vegetation where people feel safe.  Spending time in places that feel particularly serene is also linked to a decreased risk of mental illness in women.

The idea that nature can give us a mental pick-me-up is nothing new.  The Japanese practice of shin rin - yoku, or “forest bathing”, is an established tradition of connecting with nature through all the senses.  It became popular in the 1980s, after studies demonstrated its calming effects on both body and mind, reducing heart rate, stress hormones and blood pressure.


Epidemiological studies have since backed up the idea, showing that people who live in greener areas tend to have better mental health.  Until fairly recently, however, it wasn’t clear whether this was really thanks to nature or simply because people who are already healthier for other reasons choose to live in greener areas.  Mathew White at the University of Exeter, UK, and his colleagues wanted to find out, so, in 2013, they examined data on more than 1000 people in England who moved house.  They found significant benefits to mental well-being for people who relocated to greener urban areas.  For the first time, there was direct support for the idea that green spaces were making people feel less blue. 


We now have evidence that the mental boost that comes with connecting to nature goes way beyond happiness and well-being.  The list of other attributes that can be improved covers attention, creativity, memory and more.  It can also aid sleep, help people experiencing anxiety or depression and ameliorate some symptoms of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  These findings haven’t been lost on authorities, with governments pushing for more green spaces in urban design and some doctors even prescribing time in nature for their patients.


But by focusing all this attention on the power of green spaces, are we missing a trick?  The idea that blue spaces are better than green first began to emerge about a decade ago, when Susana Mourato at the London School of Economics and George Mackerron at the University of Sussex, UK, published an innovative study.  They recruited more than 20,000 people across the UK to use a smart phone app that sent them a questionnaire about how they were feeling at random times.  The participants had to submit their answers then and there.

The researchers collected more than a million responses and, by looking at phone location data, found that people were substantially happier when they were in nature of any kind compared with an urban environment, even after controlling for things like the day of the week or the weather.  But marine and coastal areas were the happiest locations “by some distance”, the researchers wrote.


Coastal areas came out about 6 points higher on a 100-point happiness scale than urban ones, equivalent to the difference between attending an exhibition and doing housework, the researchers said.  Other types of

nature, including mountains, heath land and even freshwater, scored much lower, with a happiness boost of around 2 or 3 points compared with urban areas.

The benefits don’t stop with the seaside, either.  In the past few years, more projects have looked at a range of blue spaces.  One of these is the Blue Health project, from a consortium of researchers across Europe, including White.  The team found that when pitted against green spaces, such as forests and parks, blue spaces scored better for our physical and mental well-being.  The best scenario of all, according to their results, is living somewhere where they meet.

White points out that when it comes to well-being, the effects of nature are a drop in the ocean compared with big-ticket factors such as employment, marital satisfaction or the ability to make sure your children are happy.  Even so, his research has found that living near blue spaces can buffer against some of the mental health inequalities driven by socio-economic differences.  Past research on green spaces has sometimes been accused of focusing too narrowly on the middle classes, but two large studies have now shown that people with low incomes who live by the sea are mentally and physically healthier than would be expected given their greater exposure to major drivers of decreased well-being, such as unemployment.


It makes a good deal of sense that we find being outdoors so revitalising if we consider our deep past.  In the early 1980s, biologist E. O. Wilson put forward his biophilia hypothesis, which says our brains are wired to seek out a connection to nature because of the environment we evolved in, which is very different to the ones most of us live in today.


Another idea that purports to explain our love of the wild is known as attention restoration theory.  In a nutshell, it says that our

New Chums.jpg

Places where water meets green space can be

the most restorative of all.

New Chums Beach, Coromandel Peninsula

ability to concentrate is restored by time in nature.  Attention can be divided into two types: involuntary, in which our attention is captured by intriguing or important stimuli (an intimate conversation between a couple sitting at a table behind you in a cafe, for instance), and directed or voluntary attention, where you actively focus on something (the book you were trying to read before you started eavesdropping).  The latter requires what psychologists call top-down control, which means that our thoughts are regulating our actions.  In contrast, bottom-up thinking is where sensory information is influencing our thoughts.


During directed attention, we need to suppress distractions, which is mentally exhausting.  This is where nature comes in. It is bursting with subtle, eye-catching stimuli, which trigger the bottom-up, involuntary kind of attention that gives the thinking mind a break.  If you have ever felt revived after watching a glorious sunset or gazing at the trees swaying in the breeze, it might be because these sights have given the top-down mental processes some time off, allowing them to replenish.

This idea also helps explain why blue spaces seem to be even better for us than other types of nature.  Blue spaces, especially the coast, often have patterns of change that you don’t get with green spaces.  The tide ebbs and flows, the waves lap at the shore, the sun glints on the horizon.  As well as this movement, there are changes in sound, and even light, that you don’t experience in a park or forest.  There is a soothing energy to these environmental shifts and they generate what scientists call soft fascination, diverting our attention away from more specific thoughts - possibly even the negative ruminations associated with depression, says White.

Studies also find that blue spaces lead to certain behaviours that don’t or can’t take place in green spaces: playing in the sand, swimming, paddling and so on.  Children often say that their parents play and engage with them more when they go to the seaside.  Regardless of whether such a visit is with family or friends, these kinds of activities seem to build strong, positive social experiences, and this quality time is, in turn, more beneficial for mood and well-being.  White and his colleagues have been studying whether exposure to blue spaces in childhood has an effect on mental health as an adult, with their research soon to be published.

Another possible, if more controversial, explanation for the benefits of blue spaces goes back much deeper into our evolutionary past.  Most evolutionary biologists think that humans made their departure from other apes on the evolutionary tree when they were forced out of the forest into the savannah.  But in 1960, biologist Alister Hardy argued instead that our human ancestors moved from the forest to the shore, becoming adapted to n aquatic habitat.  This aquatic ape hypothesis may potentially explain all manner of features, from our unusually good swimming ability to our largely hairless bodies and even bipedalism  - the need to keep our heads above the water would have been a pretty strong driver for walking on two legs.


Every parent of small children will have experienced the desperate urge to just get out of the house, and the apparently magical restorative benefits of even a short trip to the local park.  There's probably more going on there than just letting out some pent—up energy.


The benefits of getting into nature for
kids are huge, ranging from better academic perfomance to improved mood and focus, and helping with ADHD.  Childhood experience ol nature can also boost environmentalism in
adulthood.  And having access to urban green spaces can also play a role in children's social networks and friendships, even promoting social inclusion across cultures.

The seaside likewise works wonders.  Dr Mathew White has done research with children who had been expelled from school or were at risk of expulsion because of behavioural issues, and were enrolled in a twelve-week surfing programme.  As well as becoming fitter, the kids ended up with more positive attitudes towards their schools and their friendships, and also had a more positive body image, which is especially important because in the early teenage years it's one ot the biggest predictors of
overall well-being.

This hypothesis remains highly contentious.  But even so, says White, there is plenty of  evidence that our ancestors spent time in and around water.  Some of the earliest human settlements were also packed full of discarded seashells, suggesting our ancestors had a high-protein diet that may have helped brain development. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a propensity for beach holidays, but we certainly have a deep-rooted evolutionary link to water.  


If you are lucky enough to live near the water, or are heading there for a well-earned break, there are ways to maximise its potential benefits.  White and his colleagues’ research has shown that the strongest predictor of good mental health wasn’t proximity to or length of time spent in nature, but people’s psychological connectedness to it.  So, rather than pina coladas on a lounger, you might want to take steps to immerse yourself in the natural world, by taking photographs, say, or bringing binoculars for a spot of bird watching or even going rock pooling.


A virtual stroll

If you are stuck in the city, there are still ways you can reap the benefits of blue spaces.  Studies have found that simply looking at pictures of nature or watching natural history documentaries can emulate some of the effects, increasing positivity and beating boredom.  Virtual reality has also been shown to be effective at mimicking the healing power of nature, possibly because it triggers that sense of connection.  One study found that people who took a VR stroll by the beach while they were having a tooth extraction felt less pain, anxiety and stress, and also felt much happier about returning to the dentist later than those who took a virtual walk around a town or had no VR experience.

With all the attention being paid to making our urban spaces greener, we would do well to think about making them bluer too.  And while some doctors prescribe time in nature, perhaps they should channel Victorian doctors and issue “blue prescriptions” as well.  For those of us who already relish time spent waterside, you now have a science-approved reason to log off, head to the shore and enjoy the brain benefits that come flooding in.


Catherine de Lange,  New Scientist, 16 July 2022 

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