Canal & River Trust volunteer, Sian Steel provides some compelling evidence of the evolutionary link between humans, water, and wellbeing.
In my experience going on a walk and being in nature, even in the pouring rain, will lift my mood. It is a sentiment shared by many, but why is this so? Doctors have begun prescribing nature and the number of studies being conducted in this area are increasing. The link between nature and wellbeing is now so well recognised that initiatives such as BlueHealth1, an interdisciplinary network across Europe, have been established to research and provide recommendations that will inform city planning and development that centres wellbeing. Another example is the Wellbeing Economy Alliance2, formed by countries which value their success by human and ecological wellbeing rather than just economic growth. The wellbeing impact of nature affects us all slightly differently. However, does it have this effect because of an evolutionary link between humans and green and blue spaces, or is it just coincidence?
Humans are heavily dependent on water. It’s necessary for our health, for farming and for our ancestors it was their main form of transportation, leading them to settle around large rivers and water bodies3. With modern technology and roads, living close to water is no longer a necessity. However, this ancestral reliance on water could be linked to the wellbeing benefits we now experience from being near waterways4. It has been hypothesised that we evolved with an intimate connection to nature, and as we have become more removed from it in the last few hundred years it provides comfort to us when we are near it. Even just looking at pictures of nature can produce a strong emotional response, with an even stronger response for images that contain water5.
A study, published in the journal Nature, analysed surveys of nearly 20,000 people about the impact of nature on their wellbeing6. The results concluded that nature provides the greatest benefits to mental health and wellbeing with exposure for two or more hours each week, with benefits no longer increasing after around 200-300 minutes per week. Another study looked at nature’s ability to reduce stress by measuring the presence of stress-related biomarkers before and after exposure7. Results showed that the greatest reduction occurred between 20 and 30 minutes. ‘Ecotherapy’ is a growing field of research, and studies at the Harvard Medical School suggest that even if you can’t be outside in nature, listening to sounds such as the babbling of a river can still be beneficial8.
The importance of green and blue spaces for mental health and wellbeing is becoming more globally recognised. Research in this area is still fairly new, and whilst there is no definitive reason yet as to why nature has this effect, it could be linked to our ancestral reliance and familiarity with water. Exposure to nature is most beneficial at 2-3 hours per week. Therefore, if you’ve been taking a 20 minute stroll by your local river most days during the UK lockdown, it’s likely you’ve established a wellbeing habit that will continue well after the restrictions are lifted9.
Canal & River Trust develop range of canal-based activities in “From Isolation to Inclusion (I2I)” https://northsearegion.eu/i2i/ The idea is that by getting people “engaged with their local waterway, they become more active and healthier”. Case studies from these – added to the evidence above, will support the assertion that waterways can play an important role in facilitating ‘social prescribing’.
1 BlueHealth. 2021. About BlueHealth – BlueHealth. [online] Available at: https://bluehealth2020.eu/about/ [Accessed: 27th January 2021]
2 The Wellbeing Economy Alliance. 2021. About – Wellbeing Economy Alliance. [online] Wellbeing Economy Alliance. Available at: https://wellbeingeconomy.org/about [Accessed: 27th January 2021]
3 Roberts, R. Human evolution: Just add water. 2014. Nature 507, 303–304. https://doi.org/10.1038/507303a
4 Nasa.gov. 2007. NASA – Follow the Water:Finding a Perfect Match for Life. [online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/everydaylife/jamestown-water-fs.html
5 Smedley, T., 2013. What impact do seas, lakes and rivers have on people’s health?. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/impact-sea-lakes-rivers-peoples-health
6 White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. 2019. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3
7 Harvard Health. 2018. Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature – Harvard Health. [online] Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature
8 Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W., & Chen, S. Y. 2019. Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 722. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722
9 Lally et al. 2009. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998-1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674