Blue Hour: A Common Prescription for Improved Mental Health and Mood
By David P. Davis
The Summer crowds have gone, leaving the place vibrant but peaceful. On the one side are shops selling candy or ice cream or T-shirts, and on the other yards of sand fringed with waves. Little feet in pink flip-flops dance around the boardwalk, as a girl of four delivers an animated narrative about ponies. Her grandfather walks along with her, listening, tickled by her zeal. They stop at a bench. He sets down his poetry book, adjusts his flat cap and looks out at the water for a moment, scratching his chin through his beard. She stops her story to watch how the wind leaves the surface a bit choppy. She’s leaning on grandpa.
What they may not realize is that as they’re walking by the water, they’re improving their mental health and wellbeing. A study published in February by Stanford University psychologists Gregory Bratmana, Gretchen Daily, Benjamin Levy, and James Gross, examined differences in the psychological effects of walking in urban settings as compared to walking in nature. While there are psychological benefits to exercise in general, the researchers found that participants who walked in a natural setting experienced improved performance in their working memory. These participants also had less anxiety and an improved mood, a suite of psychological characteristics referred to as “affective benefits.”
What’s more, researchers from a variety of mental health and neuroscience fields are finding that the degree of psychological benefits depends on the quality of the natural setting, and that one of the most significant drivers of that quality is the presence of water. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine turtle researcher turned water recreation evangelist, dives into the effects of natural water settings on a wide range of mental health benefits in his 2014 book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. (Blue Mind has also been released recently in paperback.)
Among many other health problems, Nichols writes about the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and early research investigating water-related therapies that may potentially benefit Alzheimer’s patients. One promising aspect that Nichols discusses is recent research that aerobic exercise may increase the number of brain cells related to learning and memory, and that swimming in particular has been found to help maintain people’s cognitive abilities as they get older. Research is ongoing.
Of note, Nichols writes not just about the benefits of spending time in and around natural water, but also about the importance of hydration for proper brain function. Dehydration, even the mild sort, will not only cause fatigue and anxiety, but can also impair memory, reaction times and perception. Also, people getting exercise in the water can be less aware of how much water their bodies have lost, because they’re not aware of their perspiration.
With the Stanford study and the research in Nichols’ book in mind, and with a nod to Richard Louv, the nature advocate who coined the term “green hour” for any regular, planned nature time, a blue hour may be just the prescription to help promote mental health and a better mood. The blue hour, a regular time set aside for exercise or relaxation in, on, or around the water, offers a wide range of benefits, not the least of which is that it’s an enjoyable way to spend time with friends — or grandkids.
For those living in the Chesapeake Bay area, there are many opportunities to create a blue hour. Whether it’s the Bay itself, the rivers that feed it, lakes and canals in the area, or the ocean not far away, there’s a setting for every taste and every season. With opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, cycling or walking around a waterfront, there’s a physical activity for whatever mood strikes you.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources manages parks all across the state, including many with access to water. The Maryland DNR website offers an outdoor activities page that allows users to choose an activity and find all of the state parks that offer it. Among many others are blue hour activities such as swimming, boating, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. The full list of activities (and associated parks) can be found at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Publiclands/Pages/outdoors.aspx
The C&O Canal Towpath offers its own opportunities for blue hour activities, along with views of the Potomac River along much of its entire 185-mile length. Stretching from Cumberland, Md., to Georgetown, the path is ideal for hiking, cycling, or even a casual stroll, as it’s generally broad and flat. For hardy souls interested in turning their blue hour into an overnight excursion, the C&O Canal Trust offers accommodations in lock houses restored and decorated in historical style. Learn more at www.canaltrust.org/programs/canal-quarters/
Back on the boardwalk the little girl suggests that it’s a good time for ice cream. Grandpa suggests that breakfast might be a better start, and they’re on their way to find a place where they can eat and watch the water. As they go, grandpa begins reciting, “When I was down beside the sea, a wooden spade they gave to me…” The girl smiles. It’s a good day.
David is a conservationist in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He has worked as a cartographer, project manager, operations manager, and strategist for various applied science organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org