The natural world can do wonders for our mental health. Spending time in a forest, for example, has been linked to lower anxiety, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, pain relief and better sleep, among other benefits. Even just 20 minutes in a city park can boost happiness and reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
But in addition to green space like forests and parks, research shows our spirits are also buoyed by "blue space" — natural water features like rivers, lakes, wetlands and seashores, plus the ecosystems around them. People who frequent blue spaces have reported a variety of improvements in well-being — including higher self-esteem, more social confidence, increased resilience and reduced stress — and also show a lower risk of depression.
As with green space, the benefits of blue space are typically available to anyone who visits, but they may be stronger for people who live nearby. And according to a new study, published Oct. 1 in the journal Health & Place, living near the ocean is significantly linked with better mental health among urban adults in England, specifically those with the lowest incomes.
Using data from the annual Health Survey for England, the study compared people's health with their proximity to the coast, from those living within 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) of the ocean to those more than 50 km (31 miles) away. Its findings add to the growing evidence that access to coastal environments can improve health and well-being, the researchers say. And while that may be true for humans in general, the effect found in this study appeared only in people from the lowest-income households.
About one in six adults in England suffers symptoms of a common mental health disorder like anxiety or depression — conditions that are far more likely in people from poorer backgrounds. This study points to coastal access as a way to help reduce this kind of health inequality in towns and cities near the sea, according to the study's authors.
"Our research suggests, for the first time, that people in poorer households living close to the coast experience fewer symptoms of mental health disorders," says lead author Jo Garrett, a researcher at the University of Exeter's European Center for Environment & Human Health, in a statement. "When it comes to mental health, this 'protective' zone could play a useful role in helping to level the playing field between those on high and low income."
The U.K. is preparing to open access to all of the England Coast Path, a long-distance walking trail that will trace the entire English coastline once it's complete. Several hundred miles of the southwestern portion are already free to access, and as the researchers note, this project is one example of how communities can boost their benefits of living within range of the coast.
Of course, there can also be serious downsides to coastal living, many of which are now amplified by human activities. There are regional issues like toxic algae blooms and storm surges, for instance, as well as the global scourge of rising sea levels. These also tend to hit harder in poor communities, which may lack the resources to adapt or relocate as their environment changes.
Rather than suggesting we should all move closer to the ocean, the new study provides yet another reason why it's important to protect coastal ecosystems around the world. About half of all humans already live within 60 km (37 miles) of a coastline, where many are unwittingly protected from storms and flooding by natural features like coral reefs, mangroves and wetlands.
"This kind of research into blue health is vital to convincing governments to protect, create and encourage the use of coastal spaces," says co-author Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter. "We need to help policy makers understand how to maximize the well-being benefits of blue spaces in towns and cities and ensure that access is fair and inclusive for everyone, while not damaging our fragile coastal environments."