Now, you absolutely know I’m a signed-up member and card-carrier of the Water is Good for You Club. I mean, I run a business centred around it. But it isn’t just me. The scientists, boffins and psychologists of this world are increasingly aware of the power of water – or blue health, as it’s called.

Even with the restrictions the last year has brought, we have been actively encouraged to take daily exercise and use green spaces. And as restrictions begin to lift (at the time of writing), one of the first things being encouraged is to meet a friend to sit in an open space. We all know the benefits of green spaces and getting out for some fresh air. The NHS even prescribes it! But where does water come in, and what is blue health all about?

What is Blue Health?

The official definition of blue health is: “the idea that being near or on water is good for physical and mental health.

Anyone who is able, or lucky enough, to spend a significant time on or around water, through sailing, swimming, surfing or simply just walking along a riverbank or coastal path, will nearly always report that it makes them feel happier and healthier. 

This anecdotal evidence has long been known, but the actual science of it – or the ‘why’ – has not been studied in any great detail until the last two decades, and it has accelerated in the last decade thanks to the EU funded BlueHealth 2020.

The aim of the project, which is across 18 countries, is looking at a huge range of things, such as benefits of living close to the coast and better mental health, a project looking at Italian canal cycle paths, and they are looking at virtual reality to see if they can support people in care homes, or even at the dentist, to re-visit coastal places via VR.

What have they discovered with the BlueHealth project?

Listening to an interview on Radio 4 last year, I was struck by this simple observation from Dr Matthew White, who is part of the EU BlueHealth research programme: 

Physical Activity + Water = we are active for longer. Which you could surmise is better for our physical wellbeing.

Blue Space + Social = we meet, we play, we paddle, we connect. Which you could surmise is better for our mental wellbeing.

This means that the very act of spending time on or around water is good for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

He also commented that blue space such as the beach, a lake, or canal tow-path is reportedly more accessible to all. He said that woodlands and forests are more generally found to be accessed by a more middle-class population, whereas the sea, the riverside and waterways are generally seen to be used by us all.

bodyboarding widemouth

Blue Health Cornwall

Excitingly, Cornwall has its own Blue Health Project, based in Truro and under the University of Exeter, working in partnership with researchers in Sweden, Italy, Estonia and more. In the UK, they are looking at the effects of coastal path walking and also using virtual reality of aquatic settings to improve patients’ wellbeing. Exciting stuff that Cornwall is at the forefront of this research!

Cliff Top Yoga

How does cold water swimming fit in?

You must have been living under a rock to have missed the swell in popularity of cold-water swimming. From Alice ‘The Hammer’ Goodridge on Countryfile last week, to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to the ‘Winter Mermaids’ in the Metro, you can’t move for cold water swimmers. 

If you do live near the sea or a lido, you’ll have seen that when the beaches and pools are usually quiet from late autumn, they have instead been full of dry-robed and woolly-hatted swimmers who have taken advantage of working from home and embraced wild and cold water swimming like never before. A fad, like TikTok pasta and making banana bread? Maybe. But this one has undoubted benefits, which I will come on to.

On the surface, there might not seem to be an immediate appeal, but look a little deeper and the benefits reported are physical and mental:

  1. Boosts the immune system
  2. Improves circulation
  3. A natural high
  4. Burns calories (more than indoor or summer swimming)
  5. Reduces stress
  6. Promotes interaction (you should always swim with a buddy)

How can blue health help me?

If you don’t live near the coast, then it isn’t a problem. Even in a city like London or Manchester it is reported that you are less than two miles from a stretch of water such as a lake or river.

Listening to waterfalls, sitting by a canal, having a cold shower, or finding a lido are all good ways to access blue health. There isn’t a star rating that says only being in the sea is what is optimal.

You could head over to The Wave in Bristol, or join some open water swimmers in the Lake District.

What dosage do I need?

Any time outdoors is good for us. A change of scene and a chance to connect with nature. It is suggested that if we can aim for two hours a week and over, this is where the research is seeing benefits to health. 

So get out there, any way you can – even if, for now, that has to be sitting in a park feeding the ducks or wandering along the canal. Cornwall is here for you when it is safe to travel again, and we can’t wait to see you on the beach.