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The Blue and Green Exercise Prescription

By Dr Cíara Losty, Course Leader for the MSc in Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology, Waterford Institute of Technology

Health and exercise services are increasingly turning to nature-based exercise interventions as part of a practical solution for good health. With the prescription of antidepressants at an all-time high and obesity on the rise, health service providers are increasingly trying to find simple and effective alternative methods to increase general mental well-being, reduce depression, anxiety and stress-related symptoms among other benefits.

Ecotherapy solutions are a well established and trusted intervention in the US, UK and Canada but are still relatively in their infancy in Ireland. However, there is a growing emphasis on providing opportunities and accessibility to individuals to engage positively with their surrounding environments, positively and proactively. It may sound simple but imagine getting a prescription from your GP for a walk in the woods, a swim in the ocean or even to do some gardening and being told it is highly likely to improve your health and make you feel better. It may sound too good to be true, but the importance of physical activity about physical and mental health is a well-established fact. While there are many factors linked with good health, many of these are linked to the quality, accessibility and sustainability of our physical environment according to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (2009).

The National Guidelines for Physical Activity for Ireland (2008) stated that people should get 30 minutes of moderate exercise activity on five days each week as this short amount of movement can act as an antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, increase social interaction reduce absenteeism at work, reduce obesity all the while positively impacting the mental and physical health of its users (HSE, 2019). Ireland is a country that has the potential to offer some varied and impactful opportunities for people to access quality environments that help promote good health. Below is an exploration of programmes both in Ireland and overseas that have sought to provide opportunity and accessibility to exercise programmes in physical environments that help to promote good health.

The Blue Prescription

Research commissioned by Swim England showed that access and opportunity to water could provide a significant health boost with over one million UK adults say swimming improved their mental well-being. Just under half a million survey participants said they had reduced the number of times they visited their GP about their mental health issues since they took up swimming.

The Green Prescription

An evaluation of the Green Prescription exercise referral program piloted by the HSE West in Donegal found that participating in the programme reduced obesity and positively impacted on physical and mental health. Similarly, the Woodlands for Health project in County Wicklow, a project for people engaged with mental health services, found that participants improved their mood by 75% and slept by 66%. Most strikingly, thoughts of suicide declined by 82%.

Research shows that Ireland has already delivered some successful ecotherapy programmes at local level. There is a need for more joint-up, high-level thinking at the policy level because Ireland is capable of providing access and opportunities to green grass and blue waters aesthetics in ways that can make ecotherapy treatment a significant resource in the battle against rising healthcare costs (see the Waterford Greenway for a combination of both the green and blue water aesthetics). Finding ways to inspire people to use these options is a long-term sustainable way of transforming poor health and exercise habits positively and engagingly.

Five key things to remember

  1. International research shows that good health is heavily linked to our environment.

  2. Enjoy the outdoors! Wrap up well, wear layers you can take off as you get warmer. The Green Prescription programme reduced obesity and improved over all physical and psychological health. Exercise at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week, as this will have a positive impact on your brain, mood and overall health.

  3. Utilise water! Research by Swim England showed how swimming as a form of exercise could have massive positive effects on health.

  4. Ireland provides so much opportunity and accessibility to engage with physical environments that can positively impact health. USE THEM!

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