Being close to the sea makes you healthier, study of 'blue spaces' finds

People look out to sea from Repulse Bay Beach. Regular visits to such 'blue spaces' improve well-being, a study in the city by Hong Kong and British researchers shows.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post/Edward Wong

With a wide view over Belcher Bay, Corie Chu and her husband often forget they're living in a city. For this couple, the water is a relaxing tonic amid the concrete jungle of the Kennedy Town neighbourhood of Hong Kong Island, enabling them to wake up feeling amazing, Chu says.

"A water view absolutely contributes to my well-being," says Chu, a master of Reiki, a form of alternative healing. "The ocean is a natural invitation to mindfulness whether you're aware of it or not. It makes me feel calmer, less stressed and more centred and focused.

"Whenever things get intense, especially if I've been staring at a computer for too long, I look out over the water and instantly feel relieved."

The water reminds her of how much bigger Mother Nature is, and to "go with the flow", she adds.

Corie Chu at her home in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong Island, which looks out over Belcher Bay beyond the western end of Victoria Harbour. "The ocean is a natural invitation to mindfulness," she says.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Xiaomei Chen

Her experience is reflected in the findings of a groundbreaking study that spending time in and around Hong Kong's 'blue spaces' - think harbours, coastlines and beaches - is linked to better health and well-being.

The study, carried out by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Britain's University of Exeter, found that residents with a view of water from their home report better health, while those who regularly visit blue spaces report higher well-being and a lower risk of depression.

Published in the public-health journal Health and Place, it is believed to be the first of its kind conducted in Asia.

CUHK lead researcher Professor Martin Wong and his team surveyed 1,000 people visiting a cancer screening centre in Sha Tin, a town in Hong Kong's New Territories. They asked participants questions about their contact with the sea and other bodies of water, their health and well-being. Due to the nature of the screening, 80 per cent of respondents were aged over 50.

The research authors say their findings form part of a growing body of evidence worldwide that suggests contact with blue spaces benefits the health and well-being of people of all ages.

An elderly couple swim off Wu Kai Sha pier in Ma On Shan, in Hong Kong’s New Territories. People who spend time in such 'blue spaces' have better health and well-being, a study shows.
Photo: Michelle Chan

Dr Jo Garrett, from the University of Exeter, says: "Our evidence suggests that Hong Kong's harbours, beaches and other natural 'blue spaces' could be an important public health resource, at least for older residents. We found that people with a view of these environments reported better health, while those who visited regularly reported better well-being."

The researchers found that people were more likely to visit Hong Kong's 'blue spaces' if they lived within a 10- to 15-minute walk of one, and felt they had good facilities and wildlife to see. Visiting for at least an hour or more, and engaging in higher-intensity activities while in one of these spaces, were also linked to higher well-being.

Another Hong Kong resident, Kathryn Rosie, agrees that living with amazing views over Discovery Bay on Lantau Island makes her feel relaxed.

It’s common for elderly people in Hong Kong to swim regularly.
Photo: Michelle Chan

"There's nothing better than looking over the water, no matter what the weather is like or how you are feeling. Blue space is important in places like Hong Kong due to the frantic work pace and long hours that a lot of people work," says the 65-year-old.

"Living near the water has also encouraged me to explore more than I thought I would. I have made new friends by joining a hiking group and it makes me feel more upbeat."

For many elderly people in Hong Kong, early-morning aqua therapy to maintain a healthy lifestyle is popular, with 'crab seniors', as they are affectionately called, hitting beaches around Hong Kong daily.

Jasmine Nunns leads swimming groups for women in natural rock pools in Hong Kong.
Photo: South China Morning Post/Xiaomei Chen

Images of some of these elderly swimmers captured by photographer Michelle Chan were honoured recently at the International Women Photography Awards.

"Some go to train for triathlons and ocean marathons, while others don't even know how to swim but have a float board so they can stretch in the water. Some go to connect and chat with friends, and some take their grandchildren and teach them swimming," says Chan.

For those looking to reconnect with nature, swimming in natural rock pools around Hong Kong can be enlightening. Hong Kong-born Jasmine Nunns runs Kembali, which offers monthly nature- and forest-based therapy sessions that include a 'wild swimming group' for women. Nunns says humans have an affinity with water, so it is no surprise that being near 'blue spaces' improves well-being.

"After swimming in the wild, the women say they feel cleansed, physically and emotionally. Remember our bodies are 90 per cent water - we carry the ocean within us," she says.

"I'm pleased to learn about this research. We all know and feel it intrinsically to be true, but it is becoming more important that science is backing up what our ancestors have known for generations, especially in the face of coastlines and waterways being threatened by [the] increasing [number of] development projects across Hong Kong."

The authors of the Hong Kong study say more research is required to better understand the potential benefits of blue spaces and their role in informing urban planning and development.

Wong adds: "The study could help shape preservation efforts, and future programmes to encourage people to optimise the potential benefits of experiencing their natural water environments, both here in Hong Kong and globally. We're now engaged in research with our Exeter colleagues to see if these findings are replicated globally."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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