There is a specific calm that many of us recognise when we stand in front of the sea, a river or lake, take a huge breath and feel ourselves relax almost instantaneously. It’s what many of us are craving from our summer holiday destinations – that’s why Cornwall and the Lakes are among the most booked spots this August.
At a time when our physical and mental health, as well as our ability to withstand disease, are daily concerns, a growing body of scientific research is discovering there is a relatively simple way to decrease depression, boost immunity, tackle heart and blood disease and provide a host of other benefits: spending time in, or by, water.
It’s something Nick Hounsfield, 46, from Bristol, who has surfed, fished and sailed from around the age of five, has always been aware of. “Being near water makes me calm and reflective,” he says. “It’s where I go when I’m stressed, anxious or upset.”
Last year he co-founded The Wave, an inland surf experience that has a 590ft surfing lake and waves that reach up to 6.5ft, located in the countryside near his home city. “One of my beliefs was that bringing people into water and nature – and getting them interacting in a healthy way with nature and each other – could be very healing,” he says.
It has turned out to have had healing effects on him, too: after suffering a stroke earlier this year, he says he’s used the centre – now open to visitors again, with the easing of the lockdown – to recover. “I have been spending a lot of time there, cleaning the lake, doing maintenance, but also at the weekends swimming and immersing myself in the water,” he says. “It has been a very special time for myself and my family. It’s created a space of healing for us all.”
The healing power of water is a phenomenon now being labelled “Blue Health”, and is one that scientists are starting to examine in earnest. One of the biggest research projects is led by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health based at the University of Exeter. It involves more than 90 experts across the continent, and is due to report on the bulk of its findings at the end of the year.
In the meantime, Hounsfield is about to release a report that brings together some of the research on Blue Health that is out there (including some early releases from the ECEHH) about the benefits of being in or near natural bodies of water for our physical and mental health.
The report includes studies showing that water-based activities, such as surfing, can be effective forms of therapy, with the ability to help those with a range of health challenges, ranging from former soldiers with PTSD to people with confidence problems.
In September 2010, the world’s first surf-therapy course, funded by the NHS, began in Cornwall with a group of 20 young people who all had mental-health disorders. The final report concluded that it “demonstrated a valuable and cost-effective way to deliver mental healthcare, to mentor and encourage social integration of young people”.
A separate study of 25,000 people found those living in towns and cities near to England’s coast had significantly better mental health, particularly those in the lowest-income households.
Dr Mat White, of the University of Exeter, who is part of the ECEHH project, tells me there are many reasons why we experience such dramatic health benefits from being around water, hinting that even more exciting findings will be revealed at the end of the year.
Studies led by Japanese scientists and repeated all over the world have documented benefits to body and mind simply from taking a walk in the woods, a practice known as shinrin yoku, or forest bathing. But spending time by water seems to deliver even more significant health kicks. “Blue spaces tend to encourage more activity,” says Dr White.
Surfers, in particular, have been shown to have significantly lower levels of depression and anxiety, which researchers suggest is down to the combination of physical exercise and the sport’s mental benefits.
But surfing – while it is gaining in popularity – is still a minority sport. “The real benefit for most of us is that being by blue spaces seems to encourage more people to walk, and also to go with other people. Blue spaces encourage socialising, which we know is good for mental health. Social bonding is really important,” adds Dr White.
Some research suggests many of us find it easier to get on with people in natural “aquatic environments”, particularly at the coast (good news for that multi-generational family summer break), while he also says children report that parents are more likely to play with them on the beach than in a green space, such as on a walk.
Other theories abound: if you have braved the English seas without wearing a wet suit this year and felt the rush of endorphins from the cold water, that ties in with ongoing research looking into the possibility that cold-water immersion could improve our immune systems. The theory is that the short-term stress that the body experiences releases hormones that help to prepare the immune system to tackle future injury or infection.
Different kinds of water have different neurophysiological effects on us, according to something called the circumplex model of affect. “Water generally lifts us up,” explains Dr White, “but, for example, waterfalls are exciting and invigorating, while a lake might make us become calmer.” These effects can spring from man-made bodies of water, such as The Wave, as well as natural phenomena. Dr White says that for “people with anxiety and depression, these spaces are incredibly important”.
He adds: “ We’re seeing that spending time in these environments can give us the same kind of neurological hit as, say, smoking a cigarette, but without the chemicals. They’re not a silver bullet, but they can help.”
Along with more findings from the ECEHH to come later this year, there are several exciting real-world projects about to start. For instance, Hounsfield is working with the NHS to set up and run a pilot scheme to look at how surfing can help those suffering with early symptoms of psychosis, as well as a pilot with The Wave Project to help children with anxiety.
Hounsfield is also planning more inland surfing sites, with London next on his list. So, isn’t it time you dived in?
‘For me, it was a lifesaver’
Lizzie Carr, 33, founder of Plastic Patrol
I was diagnosed with stage two thyroid cancer when I was 26, and doctors couldn’t reassure me that I would survive it. While I was recuperating after gruelling rounds of radiotherapy at my dad’s home on the Isle of Wight, I saw someone paddleboarding. I was quite weak at that point, but it looked like something gentle that could get me back into exercise. I tried it and I was instantly hooked. Not only did I get stronger from the exercise, but it really helped calm my mind: there’s something about being out on the water, away from everything, concentrating on the steady motion of your paddle, that can be hypnotic.
I tried to get back into my old life, pre-cancer, but I wasn’t the same person I was before: cancer had changed me. So, I quit my job as a project manager and planned a huge 400-mile adventure, paddleboarding along England’s waterways.
The trip was incredible and gave me the space to think. But it also highlighted to me the amount of plastic pollution that was clogging up our waterways. It made me passionate about preserving nature, along with wondering how I could share these amazing spaces with others. I founded my charity Plastic Patrol to take people out on trips around the country on the water, collecting plastic. Along with the benefit to the environment that these trips provide, the number of other people who tell me that an hour out on the water is so beneficial to them is astounding. I know exactly what they mean: for me, it was a lifesaver.
I have been fishing since I was 10. My father first took me, fishing for small coarse fish – anything that took the maggots or the worm. After that I was hooked, and my passion grew into specimen angling – fishing for the biggest fish. I love the chase of trying to outwit a large fish.
Fishing is my job and my hobby. I mostly go with just my dog for company, often around where I live in Milton Keynes. I love the sense of calm; I can’t relax if I’m surrounded by others. Listening to birdsong, watching aquatic life in beautiful surroundings gives me a sense of satisfaction. Angling is my meditation; I use it to get rid of my worries. There’s nothing quite like waking up from a night of fishing to watch the sunrise, the morning mist on the water’s surface and hear birdsong announcing the start of a new day.
‘It’s had an amazing effect on my immune system’
Jeni Orme, 61, school photographer
I got into wild swimming 10 years ago after an advert for the Outdoor Swimming Society randomly pinged up on my laptop. For some reason, even though it was November, I thought I’d give it a go. I got a wetsuit from eBay and met a group swimming down a river in Dorchester. I don’t know what possessed me – it was snowing!
From there I was hooked. The freedom of being outside and challenging myself was amazing. I did several events, joined other groups and stopped using a wetsuit, even in winter. I’m lucky to live 10 minutes away from the river in Marlow and during lockdown I went every day.
I think it has amazing effects on my immune system; since I started swimming, I haven’t really been ill. The mental health benefits are huge. It’s hard to explain until you do it, but not only is it really sociable but there’s something about talking yourself into doing it when your body tells you not to; then, when you come out, you’re on such a high.
Rhiane Fatinikun, 33, founder of Black Girls Hike
Walking by my local reservoir in Entwistle, Bolton, made lockdown so much easier. Entwistle Reservoir is surrounded by beautiful pine forests and there is a little bit, called the “beach”, where you can sit quietly and watch the wildlife. It’s so calming to walk by the water, it takes you out of your daily troubles.
I haven’t been a walker for long, but at the start of last year, I was on a train going through the Peak District, and out of the window I saw lots of hikers getting off. They looked like they were about to go on an adventure and, on the spot, I decided to take it up. I wanted it to be social, so I set up an Instagram page, Black Girls Hike, because the walkers I saw were all white and of a certain age, and invited friends to join me. I’ve now got more than 5,000 followers and we’re supported by Berghaus and Lowe Alpine.
I try to focus hikes around waterfalls, lakes or rivers: there’s something so relaxing about hearing the water as you walk or sitting and watching it. I had a near-death experience a few years ago, when someone crashed into me, and I had been suffering from anxiety. This really helps, so I’ve launched BGH Healing Retreats to remove the barriers to walking and try to help others who are feeling like they need a break.
‘Being on the water is like therapy’
Dr Loel Collins, 56, director of learning and development at Plas y Brenin, National Outdoor Centre
Being on the water is my way to relax. I love the complete absorption and mindfulness of it and of being
in synergy with something so dynamic, powerful and “alive”. If I can’t get on the water sometimes just being next to it and listening to it is enough; it’s almost meditative for me. I first got into canoeing with the Scouts, when I was 12, and later I became a kayaking and canoeing coach working at the National Outdoor Centre. I love sharing the experience with clients or friends, finding beautiful places that you can only reach by kayak and canoe and seeing them have those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as being within a few feet of a porpoise or a beluga whale.
But also, sometimes it is a very personal experience that I love doing alone, such as a solo paddle at night with phosphorescence sparking off the paddles.
Without a doubt, being out on the water is like a therapy for me. I can have really stressful periods that I can manage just knowing I can get afloat soon, and I will be able to recharge or unwind.
'Surfing gives you a sense of identity’
Prof Alan Bleakley, 72
I’ve been surfing for 57 years; I grew up in Newquay and I was one of the first wave of surfers in the UK. I live just above Gwenver Beach in Penzance, so almost every morning I go surfing for about an hour. I’ve always been active, and this keeps me physically fit. I now suffer from angina, and I find that the walk down the cliff to the beach can make me enormously tired, but curiously, when I’m out on the water, it relaxes the angina, even if I’m exerting myself paddling. Surfing is also a very meditative experience; you spend a lot of time in the water sitting on the board, looking and waiting, gazing at the horizon and watching the water move around.
Surf culture has a very rich tradition and its own language, and it gives you a sense of identity and community. My family has three generations of surfers; my son Sam was a professional surfer and I often go out with him and my grandchildren, which I love.
It is wholly addictive; I don’t know what I’d do without surfing. I’ve said to my wife that if it comes to a point where I can’t physically go surfing myself, she’ll have to take me to the sea and throw me in. I just can’t see myself being out of the water.
The Best water-based activities around the UK
The Wave, Bristol
This new inland surf lagoon, which opened at the end of 2019, offers three areas for differing abilities – little waves for kids and beginners (plus excellent, friendly tuition for all abilities), as well as more powerful surges further out for intermediate and expert surfers. Consistent swells mean you can improve your skills much more quickly than you might on a beach. And if you don’t fancy getting in yourself, there’s a great café and viewing area where you can watch family and friends mastering the waves (or falling off their boards).
90-minute surf session with a lesson, £65; juniors, £55;
Lee Valley White Water Centre, Hertfordshire
For those sad about missing the Tokyo Olympics this year, Lee Valley White Water Centre, set in the River Lee Country Park, is a white-water slalom centre that was constructed to host the canoe slalom events of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Families and groups are welcome to try out activities from rodeo rafting to hydrospeeding, white-water rafting and kayaking, among others.
Stand up paddleboarding has been the surprise hit of post lockdown, with sales of boards soaring (the Ride 10’6” is a multi-award-winning board and is suitable for most people). You can search Red Paddle’s website for good spots and kit, including buoyancy aids for dogs (redpaddleco.com), but one of the best experiences available is a six-mile trip along the Kennet and Avon canal where you can paddle between and over two aqueducts (only one of a small number in the UK you are allowed to paddle across). The six-mile route is available as part of a guided tour with Sup Bristol or if you are more experienced you can navigate it solo for a truly peaceful paddle.
Padi, the world’s leading recreational diver training organisation, has more than 200 dive centres located across the UK, teaching novices or experienced divers (padi.com). Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is one of the best spots; Welsh Diving, a five-star Padi dive centre, operates trips including beachy shore dives at St Brides Bay near Haverfordwest, which is great for all levels as well as dives in the stunning marine reserve around Skomer Island, where more experienced divers can experience diving with seals.
Peace Gardens, Sheffield
The award-winning Peace Gardens in Sheffield have several water features, including the Holberry Cascades, waterfalls that represent the pouring of water into Sheffield’s five rivers and the pouring of molten metal in the foundries of the Yorkshire city’s metal industries.
Plas y Brenin, Wales
Plas y Brenin activity centre, in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, hosts a range of courses, from two-day introductions to kayaking or sea paddling, to a four-month intensive instructor course.
According to Fishbrain, the most popular app and social network for anglers, the most popular spot to fish in the UK is Poole Harbour, followed by White Cart Water, just outside of Glasgow. For women who want to get into the sport, there is also now a website to help you find fellow female anglers.
The Cotswold Water Park
The Cotswold Water Park is an area of 40 square miles, with more than 170 lakes straddling Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and West Oxfordshire, where visitors can walk, bike and bird watch. The park also has the largest inland paddling beach in the UK, where visitors can hire kayaks or go open-water swimming.
Wild swimming, nationwide
While pools were closed, the lure of wild swimming tempted many newbies. Wildswimming.co.uk has an interactive map featuring entries from their books as well as hundreds of contributions from the public, including spots such as River Esk Falls in Cumbria, a plunge pool under a high fall hidden behind rocks, with details on how to get there.
Jubilee Pool, Cornwall
The UK’s largest art deco seawater lido, Jubilee Pool, in Penzance, can cater for up to 600 swimmers in its main pool. If you don’t fancy the cool temperatures, a geothermal pool will be opening at the end of the month.
Plastic Patrol, nationwide
Download Plastic Patrol’s Planet Patrol app and sign up for a local litter-busting adventure, paddleboarding down a local waterway with a group, or start your own patrol, logging the plastic you pick up as you go. Available on the App and Play stores.
Venetian Waterways, Norfolk
The beautifully restored Venetian Waterways gardens on Great Yarmouth’s seafront are a haven for wildlife. The boating lake has rowboats and pedalos for hire. The park runs alongside North Beach, which, along with the dunes, is part of a larger nature conservation area, and home to little terns during summer months.