In the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Sian Steel, a volunteer with Canal & River Trust takes a look at the important role inland waterways can play…
It is well known that being outside in nature is good for us, and there is now growing evidence that time spent by waterways in particular, can help to improve our mental health and wellbeing. Some GPs’ are even prescribing walks by canals for this very reason. Dr Philippa Moreton explained in an interview with the Canal and River Trust that exercise in green spaces, particularly by water, can improve both physical ailments such as osteoarthritis and mental health conditions.
“Exercise in green spaces, particularly by water, can improve both physical ailments such as osteoarthritis and mental health conditions.”
Having access to green and blue spaces not only encourages physical activities, providing well maintained paths for running and cycling, but also offers an escape for some peace and quiet. These areas also physically improve our surroundings, with trees filtering air pollution and water bodies regulating the air temperature. With greater emphasis placed on the benefits of using natural resources to maintain our wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis, it is likely that higher value will be placed on these spaces in the future.
In 2016 the Trust commissioned a study by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare to review the benefits of waterways for mental health. It found that the unique characteristics of a waterside environment such as access to water sports, proximity to healthcare venues, accessibility and well-maintained pathways could provide additional benefits over solely green spaces. They realised that by assessing the health priorities of a local area, they could target specific changes to the waterways that would make them most beneficial for that community.
Therefore, in 2018 the Trust repositioned itself as a waterways and wellbeing charity. The majority of their supporters were no longer just those who worked or lived on waterways but those who were accessing them for exercise, socialising and relaxation. Canals and rivers were now being utilised for a whole host of activities and providing a natural health service to their local communities, as well as visitors from further afield. Through research it was revealed how beneficial waterways can be for wellbeing, therefore by taking care of them and improving access they are also taking care of communities.
Currently the most vulnerable individuals are unable to leave their houses. However, nature is still accessible and is being brought into homes through virtual reality. Those that cannot be in nature at the moment, may actually have the most need for the respite it can bring. And studies show that, like direct exposure to nature, virtual reality can benefit emotional wellbeing. With technologies like this becoming a bigger part of daily life, everyone is able to access and benefit from the great outdoors.