Taking part in activities, like paddling, has ‘measurable physical and mental health benefits’, a university review has found.
British Canoeing commissioned Sheffield Hallam University to undertake a literature review related to the physical, mental and economic benefits of blue space.
The health and wellbeing benefits of spending time in nature are well known and well researched.
Studies show that living closer to nature is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity in adults.
Accessing blue space makes us feel happier and healthier.
But how much evidence is out there that shows the positive effect blue environments can have on our wellbeing?
In 2023, British Canoeing commissioned Sheffield Hallam University to undertake a literature review related to the physical, mental and economic benefits of blue space.
Evidence from a range of academic studies show that taking part in sport and physical activity in and on blue space has measurable physical and mental health benefits.
A number of academic studies proved that effect to be significant.
Some studies show that simply being in the proximity of blue space creates a plethora of benefits to health and wellbeing.
Participants report feeling substantially happier outdoors in all natural habitats than they are in urban environments.
Visits to blue spaces that create the best mental well-being outcomes tended to come from those that are nearby coastal areas or rural rivers.
They were perceived as safe, had good water quality, and covered a long duration.
In 2020, it was estimated that half of the UK population interact with a blue space at least once a month.
Due to the informal nature of recreation in blue space, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the full scale of watersports participation.
The Watersports Participation Survey estimated that over 20.5m people take to the water each year to do a paddle sport.
The same report estimated that over 7.5m adults took part in canoeing, kayaking or stand up paddleboarding one or two times in 2022, with over 2.7m participating three or more times.
In 2021, boating and water sports represented 45% of the £4.7bn economic contribution of wider tourism expenditures associated with the boating and water sports sector in the UK.
The growth in the popularity of watersports, presents a strong business case for expanding the opportunity to access blue space and its positive benefits to more people.
Some studies have highlighted the impact that the quality of the environment can have on the positive health outcomes.
The relationship between quality and frequency of use applies to both tourist visits and to those who access blue space close to home.
Research has established that poorer water quality limits the positive health outcomes otherwise associated with blue space environments.
There is a considerable body of research on the positive effects participation in sport and physical activity can have on our minds and bodies.
A growing number of studies now show that water based activity can be particularly beneficial to your physical and mental wellbeing.
One study, 2016, found that participants in a six-week course of stand-up paddling showed significant improvements in aerobic (+24%) and anaerobic fitness (+42%).
There were also improvements in core strength.
Other studies demonstrated how paddlesports have been used to improve motor skills, balance, coordination and concentration in people with disabilities.
Multiple studies showed that for participants with protected characteristics, the physical health benefits of paddlesports appear to be amplified.
The benefits of paddlesports do not appear to be limited to those who participate directly.
One study assessed the value of inclusive watersports events in the context of volunteering.
They found that mental and physical health benefits may also extend to the volunteers who facilitate inclusive sport programmes and events.
Some of the most powerful evidence revealed by the literature review relates to the mental health benefits of outdoor recreation.
There is strong evidence to suggest that paddlesports have a positive effect on mental health.
Participation in water sports improves mood, increases levels of happiness, and reduces stress and anxiety.
Blue space appears to have restorative qualities which exceed those attributable to green space.
People who interact with blue spaces find it to be a restorative experience.
It can reduce levels of psychological distress and promote cognitive restoration and stress reduction, relaxation and mindfulness.
This is significant given that the cost to the UK economy of poor mental health has now been estimated to be in the range of £53-56bn pa, which equates to more than 2.6% of annual GDP.
In one study, wellbeing outcomes in sea-kayaking were related to the body-sensory experiences in the environment.
This included both ‘sublime-invigorating’ and ‘calming-soothing’ effects.
These experiences contribute to meaning-making, authenticity, resilience, sense-of-coherence, subjective-wellbeing in the broader contexts of the participant’s life.
It also ranks 11th out of 15 on levels of physical activity.
It is no coincidence that those nations that rank above the UK have a more expansive freedom to access nature that we have in the UK.
Obesity is estimated at costing the economy £58bn pa and our population is 20% less active than they were in the 1960’s and set to be 30% less active by 2030.
It is entirely unsustainable to rely on the NHS alone to provide the solutions to these problems.
There is an overwhelming body of academic research that clearly shows that access to nature - particularly good quality blue space - is good for our mind and bodies.
Time in, on or alongside water can help tackle mental distress such as depression and anxiety.
It can improve our mood, support social interactions and cohesion and have profound benefits for people with mental or physical disabilities.
Policies that enable people to be active, lead healthy lifestyles and support mental and physical wellbeing are often the same policies that help promote a sustainable economy, build stronger communities and protect our environment.
While the phrase “following the science” will forever be associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, its application in this context simply cannot be ignored.
The body of evidence in support of greater access to nature as a remedy for tackling obesity, improving mental health and reducing mortality from curable diseases is growing all the time.
To achieve the step change in public health that is so urgently required needs big bold decisions by the government.
In their latest strategy, DCMS has targeted getting 3.5m more people active by 2030.
While this is laudable, the scope to set our ambitions higher is far greater.