When we consider the benefits that rivers bring, perhaps the first things that spring to mind are the habitats and food sources for wildlife that they supply, and their contribution to the health of the ecosystem as a whole. However, the importance of nature to our health and wellbeing is an aspect that is being currently being extensively researched and is perhaps only beginning to be fully appreciated and understood.
In terms of physical health, one of the most obvious ways that nature benefits us is providing a space to exercise, and one that is much more beautiful, varied, and peaceful than your average gym! Rivers and estuaries provide a huge range of exercise and sporting opportunities – walking, jogging, sailing and canoeing to name just a few. Recent research has also found that there are higher levels of physical activity in communities that have access to the natural environment, and, for instance, walking groups have a far lower drop-out rate than gyms, suggesting that people find exercising outside more enjoyable than exercising inside. In addition, natural environments are not as blighted by air pollution as city or town environments, thereby creating a healthier environment in which to exercise.
There is strong evidence that contact with nature can help recovery from illness. The mechanisms of this are not fully understood, but studies have shown that stress levels fall within minutes of entering the natural environment. Physical health is intrinsically linked with mental health, and so the peaceful surroundings and the feeling of escaping from everyday life may well play their part in recovery from physical illnesses.
Mental health can be vastly improved by spending time around nature. As well as reducing stress, it has been shown to reduce aggression, violence and crime, depression, and create a general sense of wellbeing.
The huge benefits to physical and mental health have been recognised by the NHS -‘The NHS can help tackle health inequalities and promote physical and mental well-being by encouraging greater understanding of the value of spending time in the natural environment’ Sir Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer (2008).
As such, GPs are starting to explore the possibility of prescribing physical activity in the natural environment as a treatment for physical conditions such as obesity, and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and autism. One such programme, began in 2013, is a £10,000 pilot scheme, funded by Dorset Healthcare University Foundation Trust, offering young people a series of surf lessons on prescription. Looking at questionnaires filled in by the patients before and after the course, and listening to feedback from parents and carers, it has been found that the majority felt their confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing had improved after the course. And parents and people who referred the children said they seemed more engaged in school and had improved behaviour. There are similar schemes in Cornwall and Devon.
Being in natural surroundings can also benefit communities as a whole as well as the individuals within them. It has been found that communities with shared natural areas demonstrate more social interaction, care and vibrancy.
This aspect of our rivers and estuaries is often overlooked but they are a fantastic, free, natural resource that can offer so much in terms of quality of life. In the South West we are extremely lucky to have such a large number of them, of such a high quality and so varied in what they can offer in terms of wildlife, activities, and beautiful natural surroundings.