Study identifies best visits to “blue” nature spots for wellbeing boost

Posted on 7th March 2023

A new study has identified what factors give the biggest wellbeing boost when visiting nature spots near water.

The research concludes that visits to coastal areas and rural rivers give the best mental wellbeing outcomes compared to other types of blue space. The authors also found that visits to blue environments are associated with better wellbeing outcomes when those spaces are closer to home, adding weight to new government plans for everyone to live within 15 minutes’ walk of a green space or water.

The research surveyed more than 18000 people in 18 countries and found that the quality of visits also plays a role, with visits to places perceived to be safe and with good water quality offering the biggest wellbeing benefits. The activities that people engage in are important too, with the largest benefits to mental health linked to playing with children, socialising, and walking.

The research was conducted as part of the BlueHealth project, and coincides with the government’s announcement of its Environmental Improvement Plan, aspects of which chime with over 10 years of research findings from the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked about their most recent visit to a “bluespace” and a range of questions including where they went, what they did and how they felt about the visit.

Dr Jo Garrett, Research Fellow at The University of Exeter said: “It’s great news that the government hopes to improve the environment and our access to green and blue spaces through its Environmental Improvement Plan, but we need to make sure we are really making the most of these visits to get the best mental health benefits.

“This study shows that not all visits are equal – the quality of time spent outdoors really does make a difference. The government definition of a green space doesn’t currently include any mention of quality, so we’d argue they could go a step further. After all, living close to inaccessible green space, or a polluted river, doesn’t offer much in the way of boosting wellbeing.”

Mathew White, Senior Scientist at the University of Vienna said: “We’ve been talking about the benefits of blue spaces for years, so it’s good to see the government acknowledge the importance of these spaces in the latest guidelines.

“While some of the findings may at first sight seem quite obvious, they are still one of the first attempts to quantify these benefits in ways that can be combined with the other benefits nature provides us like food, carbon capture, and flood mitigation so that recreational experiences can be valued and protected.”

The BlueHealth paper, titled “Applying an ecosystem services framework on nature and mental health to recreational blue space visits across 18 countries” is published in Scientific Reports.

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