What Are the Health Benefits of Viewing Water?

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Leaf floating on water way, showing shadow.
New research reveals that waterways offer soothing properties for body and mind.(Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Looking at a body of water, whether it's crashing ocean waves, a quiet pond, or the swimming pool in your backyard, may be good for your psychological well-being. 

A pair of studies conducted by Richard Coss, professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis, and a former student, Craig Keller (B.A., psychology, ’09), showed that gazing at bodies of water can help lower your heart rate, blood pressure and increase feelings of relaxation. Their findings were featured in a recent online article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Their first study showed 32 participants with reduced average heart rate and lower blood pressure (systolic/diastolic ratio) after looking at a swimming pool than they did after viewing a tree in a parking lot or a street sign.

The second study was conducted at the UC Davis Arboretum. After visiting several testing sites, the blood pressure and heart rate of 73 participants were lower when participants looked at the Arboretum waterway than when they viewed the adjacent ground. The wider the body of water, the more pronounced the effect was. 

Paradoxically, participants reporting higher levels of relaxation experienced faster heartbeats at some of the testing sites — especially when viewing wider sections of water. “It is plausible that the participants in our study misinterpreted their joy of observing the wider sections of water with enhanced relaxation,” Coss said.

Coss, whose research focuses on how evolution influences human behavior and neurobiology, has long been interested in the physiological and mood-enhancing effects of viewing water.

In studies in the late 1980s, he found that pictures of landscape scenes with water could potentially enhance the living experiences of astronauts in the then-planned International Space Station. 

“The cardiovascular and psychological benefits of brief periods of gazing at water are temporary,” said Coss. Further study is needed on whether sustained viewing would have more lasting benefits.

The next time you feel your heart racing and your blood pressure rising, try this: go outside and gaze at a body of water. 

This blog highlights and summarizes an original article by Kathleen Holder. See the original article here.

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