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New research shows that children who spend time near a body of water have better mental well-being later in life as adults. Sol Stock/Getty Images
  • Growing evidence suggests exposure to natural environments can benefit health and well-being. Yet most research to date has centered around green spaces.
  • Using data from 18 regions worldwide, scientists examined the association between childhood exposure to “blue spaces,” like inland lakes and coastal areas, and adult well-being.
  • Across all countries examined, the researchers found that children exposed to blue spaces were more likely to report better well-being during adulthood.
  • Adults who reported blue space experiences as children were also more likely to value natural settings and visit them more often, leading to continued benefits.

Being in nature is good for you — and there is plenty of research to prove it.

Myriad studies have shown that exposure to green spaces, including forests, parks, and gardens, benefits human health and well-being. But these natural environments aren’t the only settings that can offer health benefits.

According to a 2020 research review, therapeutic use of “blue spaces,” including lakes, rivers, and coastal regions, can also promote mental health and psychosocial well-being. Further research has indicated that childhood exposure to natural environments may lead to better mental health during adulthood.

Yet despite the known benefits, children are becoming detached from the natural world.

In the 2017 Yale School of the Environment study, for instance, parents of children 8 to 12 years old reported that their children spend 3 times as many hours with computers and televisions each week as they do playing outside.

Now, new research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology echoes previous findings, providing more evidence that childhood exposure to nature, specifically blue spaces, may lead to better health and well-being later in life.

To conduct the study, researchers used data from the cross-sectional BlueHealth International Survey (BIS) — organized by the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

The 18-country analysis included 18,838 people from 14 European nations, as well as Hong Kong, Canada, and Australia. The survey also included respondents from the state of California.

The research team asked the study participants to report their experiences in the following categories:

  • current personal well-being
  • childhood experiences with blue spaces
  • current motivations to visit natural spaces
  • frequency of recent visits to blue and green spaces

The team also examined behavior concerning water quality, health and well-being outcomes, and demographic information.

In the childhood experiences section, the researchers asked the study participants to recall their exposures to blue space settings from birth to age 16. They also inquired whether blue spaces were easily accessible and if their parents or guardians were comfortable with the experiences.

After analyzing the data, the scientists found that more exposure to blue spaces during childhood predicted better subjective well-being in adulthood. They also determined that the results were consistent across all countries and regions.

“We found a positive direct link between childhood contact with blue spaces and reported adult well-being,” Valeria Vitale, lead author of the study and PhD candidate at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, told Healthline.

“Our study showed that positive blue space experiences in the formative years of childhood may trigger enduring motivations to engage with natural spaces across the lifespan, facilitating more frequent nature visits in adulthood.”

Vitale noted that additional factors may be involved in how childhood experiences with blue spaces affect adult mental health outcomes and that other possible mechanisms may contribute to this link.

“Childhood blue space experience may increase familiarity and sense of safety toward those environments and natural spaces in general, through repeated exposures,” Vitale said.

Healthline asked Vitale whether constructed blue spaces, such as swimming pools, might have the same positive associations found with natural bodies of water.

Vitale explained that although this study did not distinguish between different types of blue spaces and did not analyze potential differences in their uses or their impact on well-being.

“When participants were asked how often they had made recreational visits to several blue and green spaces categories in the last month, our definition of blue spaces more specifically referred to all the places that contain water,” she said.

Vitale further clarified that the study did not include indoor areas, places visited for job purposes, or private locations such as private gardens, land, ponds, or swimming pools.

Frolicking in the warm waters of a sandy beach or taking a dip in an inland lake may provide benefits by affording opportunities for relaxation, recreation, and social connections. It can also be a way to engage in physical activity and increase vitamin D levels through sun exposure.

But more research is still needed to understand how blue spaces impact health and well-being.

“Both green spaces and blue spaces can benefit mental health and overall well-being, and that’s why when you listen to relaxation recordings, they usually include sounds from both spaces,” Christine Cauwels, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist with Cerebral online therapy based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, told Healthline.

“We’re not exactly positive about how it works, but we believe it has something to do with enhancing certain emotions that directly respond to things in nature like peace, stillness, beauty, and calmness. In addition, we believe it’s a complete shift from the hustle and bustle that we’re used to, takes us away from our electronics and helps us disconnect from our worlds for a short period of time.”

Moreover, blue spaces may provide benefits for mental health conditions like seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“Seasonal depression tends to be reduced by the combination of exercise and exposure to sources of light,” Alan Goodwin, PhD, a psychologist in Encino, California, told Healthline.

“If the particular blue space were to offer opportunities for exercise and exposure to bright light, it would likely offer help to those who [have] seasonal depression if the individual were to use the space in ways that produce those benefits.”

Still, repeated blue space exposure may be needed to promote mental health and well-being.

“In general, exposure to natural environments carries many benefits but needs to be done regularly to achieve the best results,” Cauwels said. “Even if you can make it a point to do it at least 3 times a week for 20–30 minutes each session, you may start to feel some of the benefits.”

For some people, however, accessing aquatic areas may be challenging, particularly for those who live in urban areas.

But many accessible inland bodies of water also count as blue spaces. According to Vitale, these may include:

  • lakes
  • urban rivers or canals
  • fountains and pools
  • urban coastal areas such as seaside resorts
  • harbors
  • ports and piers
  • beaches, cliffs, and headlands

For some parents, ensuring their children have access to blue spaces may require putting aside any fears associated with aquatic environments. Community-wide blue space initiatives could help alleviate some of those concerns.

“With evidence that potential risks associated with blue spaces may increase parental concerns about children’s contact with these environments and constitute a barrier to engagement, increased accessibility to swimming lessons, especially for children from marginalized communities, as well as the provision of safe and supervised blue space recreational activities for children more generally appears warranted,” Vitale said.

Vitale noted that researchers involved in the BlueHealth project produced “Urban Blue Spaces: Planning and Designing for Water, Health and Well-Being” — a free e-book describing how urban planners can design water spaces for the public.

In addition, with support from several organizations, including WHO, the researchers created the Decision Support Tool (DST). This tool can help planners design effective blue spaces while recognizing and managing the risks associated with aquatic environments.

We’ve all heard that nature is beneficial for well-being, yet many people may find it difficult to spend enough time outdoors — especially children.

As new research builds on a growing body of evidence in support of the mental health benefits of blue and green spaces, adults and children alike are encouraged to try to get outside more often.

Even if you live in an urban area, there’s a good chance you have some access to a community green or blue space. Sometimes, spending even just a few minutes in one of these spaces could be enough to boost your mood.