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Why paddling makes us feel happier and less stressed

Paddlers have always known that engaging with blue space makes them feel good. But the reason why is surprising and lies deep within our brains.

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Back in the 1990s, Dr William Bird MBE encouraged some of his patients to go for walks to improve their health. This advice was often met with surprise and a bit of irritation.

“When you go to a doctor, you’re expected to be treated special and therefore you’d have drugs, or operations or specialist treatment,” he said.

“People want the best. When you tell them to go for a walk in a park, or [by] a riverside or canal, they think, ‘well, my granny could have told me that, that’s not science. Who the hell are you? You’re meant to be a doctor’.”

It is now accepted that spending time engaging in nature can make a lasting difference to our lives. Particularly when it comes to water.

​We know blue space definitely does have a bigger impact than green space,

– Dr Bird

“You can get blue space in a city with no greenery at all, like canals going [past] warehouses, that have as much restfulness on people as going into a park… blue space on its own has an incredible value to it.”

In prehistoric times, early humans saw ‘safe’ nature as a place of safety and security, Dr Bird added. Especially where there’s water, as we need it to survive. 

“All the things about our connection to nature are going to the brain and telling us that things are ok,” he said.

“Our entire setup of our systems from our time as hunters and gatherers is safety and security and we always try to return to safety.“

Our deep connection to water is also related to the reptilian part of our brains, according to Dr Bird.

“One of the things about water and nature is that it provides food, shelter and means you’ve got relative safety there because you can sustain yourself,” he said.

“... You feel all your deep emotional parts of the brain, the reptilian parts all say, ‘great that’s fine’ and they calm down what’s called the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that senses fear.”

Despite the scientific evidence, why don’t we all get out paddling on the water, or even walk alongside a river or canal? Why are such simple pursuits overlooked when it comes to our health?

Dr Bird said it’s because as humans we are always trying to rationalise these inherent feelings.

“It’s too natural [to go for a walk, or a swim], too normal, too ordinary and it’s putting the responsibility back on you,” he said.

“A doctor shouldn’t be telling you to do this, we should all be doing this. It should be normal for everyone.”

Just being near water, even looking at a river from inside a car, can make a difference to our mental health, said Dr Bird.

By participating in the water, as a canoeist, kayaker or paddleboarder, the feelings of wellness increase and add even more value. 

“The more you participate often you increase the benefit you get,” he said. 

Being on the water itself, particularly when you stop to listen and watch. That period of peace and quiet tends to make a massive difference.

– Dr Bird

Dr Bird’s advice is to keep engaging with nature. Particularly with blue space, so keep paddling! It will make a world of difference to your mental health.

Dr William Bird MBE set up Intelligent Health, in February 2010. The intention was to prevent people from developing diabetes and lung conditions. He set up the Green Gym and Beat the Streets, as a way to build active communities. Read more about Intelligent Health, here