You drive up to the cottage, park the car and let out the kids. Then, you stop to take in the view, the wind, the smells and the sound of small waves splashing against the shore. And almost immediately, you can feel your muscles relaxing, your breaths growing deeper and your own brainwaves slowing down to mirror the gentle roll of the lake.
What’s happening isn’t just in your head. It’s not just about being on vacation or close to the woods. It specifically has to do with being by the lake – and there’s a growing body of science to show that.
There is a clear correlation between close proximity to a body of water and better psychological and overall health outcomes, said Michael Depledge, chair of Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School.
Depledge has been studying the effects of so-called “blue environments” for a decade, helping to shepherd a number of research projects that have caught the attention of the U.K. government and the European Union (EU).
Spending time near the water, “promotes physical activity and general fitness,” reducing the incidence of diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity.
But it also slows down our heart rate and reduces stress hormones, boosting our mental health, which Depledge calls “the second great epidemic we’re facing.”
The World Health Organization, for one, expects depression to become the world’s largest contributor to disease by 2030.
Human beings need the blue just as much as the green
The work of Depledge and others at the University of Exeter started as an extension of studies pioneered by researchers like Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, at the University of Michigan, who showed the health benefits of spending time in green spaces.
One line of research, in particular, found that people consistently show a strong preference for pictures of natural environments even when compared to attractive urban landscapes. But Depledge and his team noticed that while the rivers, lakes and the sea often appear in the visual stimuli associated with green spaces, water rarely appeared in pictures of cities and other man-made environments.
When they ran their own study including pictures of things like fountains, canals and coastal cities, they found that respondents consistently reacted better to pictures with water.
In fact, the more water in the picture, the more positive the reaction was likely to be, Depledge said. Although people still expressed a preference for natural over urban settings with water, it was clear that aquatic features mattered a great deal.
In their next study, Depledge and his colleagues used data from a government-run annual health survey of England to see if they could spot a link between health and proximity to water.
Sure enough, coastal residents consistently reported feeling healthier than others living further away from the sea.
“Self-reported health is a well-recognized, useful measure,” that correlates closely with actual health, Depledge said. After all, if you’re feeling unwell, you probably are – and vice versa.
The health disparities between coastal and inland communities are sharper for low-income individuals, probably because the wealthy have less stressful lives in general and the ability to take regular beach vacations, Depledge said.
Still, today, Depledge and his colleagues have amassed data from some 48-million respondents indicating a strong relationship between living near the water and well-being.
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How do lakes compare to rivers or the sea?
When it comes to health, we don’t know yet how the sea compares to a lake or a river. Data from England is mostly about coastal communities reaping the benefits of blue space, but that may be because the region has thousands of kilometres of coastline and only a rather small – if very charming – lake district, Depledge said.
While research out of the University of Exeter attracted public funding for pilot projects to encourage people to travel to the coast, the government in Finland is backing similar research focused on the country’s 187,000-some lakes, according to Depledge.
A large enough lake, like the ones that dot the Canadian landscape, is probably very similar to the sea, he added.
But scientists won’t be able to definitively answer the question of whether some bodies or water are better than others until they understand what, exactly, causes us to feel calmer and get healthier.
For example, we don’t know yet whether it’s the sight of the water, the air or the sounds – or a specific combination of all three – that causes our stress levels to go down when we take a stroll by the beach. Although we do know that blind people and others with sensory disabilities also draw benefits from blue spaces, Depledge said.
Scientists are also looking into whether, say, the coast of England is just as beneficial as that of Florida.
Of course, your vitamin D levels will likely be higher if you’re vacationing in the southern U.S. state. But British research has shown that chemicals released from marine life and microbes can help prevent or reduce hyperimmune responses like allergies and asthma, Depledge said. On the other hand, harmful algae blooms in Florida can worsen allergy and asthma symptoms.
There is also “a very strong cultural overlay” that comes with studies about the benefits of blue spaces, Depledge said. While Westerners seem to uniformly find bodies of water relaxing, data from communities in the Tropics, more likely to be subject to monsoons and tsunamis, have a less idyllic view of the sea.
Finally, it’s not entirely clear yet what governments should do with the research findings about water and health. Encouraging mass migration to the coast would have obvious pitfalls. But even the more sensible idea of incorporating more ponds and canals in public parks and other urban settings presents challenges.
More bodies of water would help keep our cities cooler, something increasingly desirable in a warming planet. And drainage systems leading to neighbourhood ponds could help avoid flash-flooding from increasingly frequent torrential rains, Depledge said.
But stagnating water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects, he added.
Still, something seems clear. Spending time near the water is one of the best things you can do with your vacation.