A new Spanish study shows that taking short, frequent walks along blue spaces — areas that prominently feature water, such as beaches, lakes, rivers or fountains — appears to have a positive effect on people’s mental health, mood and vitality.

Several studies have demonstrated the health benefits of walking in green spaces (areas of grass, trees, or other vegetation set apart for recreational or aesthetic purposes), such as reduced risk of obesity, better attention span in children and slower physical decline in older adults. Now the new study provides evidence that blue spaces are also an environment conducive to good mental health.

For the study, led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), the research team looked at data on 59 adults. Over the course of one week, participants spent 20 minutes each day walking in a blue space. In a different week, they spent 20 minutes each day walking in an urban environment. During yet another week, the participants spent the same amount of time resting indoors.

The blue space route was along a beach in Barcelona, while the urban route was along city streets. Before, during and after each activity, the research team measured the participants’ blood pressure and heart rate and used questionnaires to evaluate their well-being and mood.

“We saw a significant improvement in the participants’ well-being and mood immediately after they went for a walk in the blue space, compared with walking in an urban environment or resting,” said Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Director of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative at ISGlobal and coordinator of the study.

Specifically, after taking a short walk on the beach in Barcelona, the participants reported improvements in their mood, vitality and mental health. The authors did not identify any cardiovascular health benefits, although they believe this may be due to the design of the study.

“We assessed the immediate effects of taking a short walk along a blue space,” said ISGlobal researcher Cristina Vert, lead author of the study. “Continuous, long-lasting exposure to these spaces might have positive effects on cardiovascular health that we were not able to observe in this study.”

“Our results show that the psychological benefits of physical activity vary according to the type of environment where it is carried out, and that blue spaces are better than urban spaces in this regard,” said Vert.

Several ISGlobal studies have identified health benefits associated with green spaces, including lower risk of obesity, better attention capacities in children and slower physical decline in older adults. The new research provides evidence showing that blue spaces are an environment favorable to mental health.

“According to the United Nations, 55% of the global population now lives in cities,” said Nieuwenhuijsen. “It is crucial to identify and enhance elements that improve our health, such as blue spaces, so that we can create healthier, more sustainable and more liveable cities.”

The Barcelona Institute of Global Health (ISGlobal) is the result of an innovative alliance between the “la Caixa” Foundation and academic and government institutions.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research, was conducted under the BlueHealth project, a European research initiative investigating the links between urban blue spaces, climate and health.

Source: Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal)