In recent years, emphasis on communities having ample “green space” for residents has become more prevalent. Reserving areas for a nature-like setting within and near to residential developments, allows for the convenience of nearby opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and get fresh air. Lush grasses, ample shade trees and perhaps a sidewalk or picnic tables to dot the landscape are usually features of green spaces like parks, community gardens, greenways and even cemeteries.
Beach locales offer sun, sand, fun and relaxation to soothe and bring stress relief. But, did you know the term “blue spaces” refers to any visible surface water? It is commonly said that after a day on the water, whether on a river, lake pool or ocean, one sleeps better.
It turns out, there’s a reason humans turn to natural environments to improve their well-being. A growing body of research is demonstrating that there is a real association between time spent in natural spaces and a person’s health. Here’s a quick review of a few of these studies:
One study conducted in the UK, evaluated accessibility to both green and blue spaces in relation to the rate of physical decline in older adults (aged 50 to 74 years at baseline). Utilizing analysis of the Whitehall II study (a longitudinal, prospective cohort study of 10,308 women and men that investigated social determinants of health, specifically cardiovascular disease prevalence and mortality rates), researchers found participants who had “higher residential surrounding greenness” also had less decline in walking speed over 10 years. Additionally, being near a combination of green and blue spaces was associated with a “slower decline in walking speed and grip strength.” The further the distance from home to the natural area, the faster the decline in walking speed. This is especially important to keep in mind as our world population ages. The World Health Organization (WHO) expects the proportion of older people in the world to nearly double, from 12% to 22% by 2050.
Another study conducted in Hong Kong found that older adults who simply had a view of blue space from their home were more likely to report good general health. Those who made the effort to go to the water feature had greater odds of high wellbeing. The people tended to visit blue spaces more frequently if it was within a 10-15 minute walk, or if the person believed the space had good facilities and wildlife to view onsite. Additionally, longer visits were associated with higher recalled well-being.
A 2016 Dutch study also confirmed the benefits of natural spaces; however, they found blue spaces to be more beneficial than green spaces. While increased green space was associated with lower occurrence of anxiety disorders, blue spaces were found to have this association with both anxiety and mood disorders. Each were positively associated with good mental health as well as general health; and researchers found that when it comes to green space, it’s not just quantity, but the quality of the space that is important.
Green and blue space benefits are not restricted to older populations. An analysis of Bulgarian students revealed that higher amounts of vegetation (green space) around their residences was associated with better mental health. This was primarily in the form of increased physical activity and restorative quality. Once again, blue space correlated with better mental health.
But, why? There are a variety of reasons natural areas positively impact health. An area that is primarily vegetation or water, by default, will tend to have lower air and noise pollution. Natural areas lend themselves well to social functions like picnics and sporting events. For most people, spending time in nature is recreational, and therefore may help relieve stress. A walk through a park or a pick-up kickball game in the yard during a lunch break can help a person let go of stress and induce a restorative emotional feeling.
As our world continues to grow and change, we should remember to keep a connection to nature incorporated into our lives. Take advantage of the existing natural spaces we have. They help us stay healthy. Encourage the preservation and creation of green and blue spaces in future developments. Additional research may later be able to demonstrate exactly how the health benefits are facilitated by our bodies and minds, but for now, we simply need remember that it does happen.
Next time you are feeling stressed, head for a park or the lake. Tennessee is blessed with a wide variety of state parks, greenway trails, parks and natural areas to explore. Soak up some of what nature has to offer and help your mind and body stay healthy, naturally.
Dzhambov, Angel M. Residential green and blue space associated with better mental health: a pilot follow-up study in university students. Archives of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology. Volume 69: Issue 4. Published online: 11 Jan 2019 https://doi.org/10.2478/aiht-2018-69-3166
de Vries S, Ten Have M, van Dorsselaer S, van Wezep M, Hermans T, de Graaf R. Local availability of green and blue space and prevalence of common mental disorders in the Netherlands. BJPsych Open. 2016;2(6):366‐372. Published 2016 Nov 23. doi:10.1192/bjpo.bp.115.002469
de Keijzer C, Tonne C, Sabia S, et al. Green and blue spaces and physical functioning in older adults: Longitudinal analyses of the Whitehall II study. Environ Int. 2019;122:346‐356. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2018.11.046
Garrett JK, White MP, Huang J, et al. Urban blue space and health and wellbeing in Hong Kong: Results from a survey of older adults. Health Place. 2019;55:100‐110. doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2018.11.003