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People who spend time around aquariums could improve their physical and mental wellness a study has suggested. As well as improving people’s mood, the experiment showed “significant” reductions in participants’ heart rates and blood pressure.

Other reports have linked contact with nature and improved well-being but this study is believed to be the first controlled experiment of its kind. The findings appear in the journal Environment and Behavior.

Data from participants in the aquarium provided the researchers with a unique view to examine the links between human well-being and contact with nature.

Dr White explained “What we were able to do here was – as far as we know in the world’s first controlled experiment: We knew exactly the number of species and the number of [fish] that people were looking at, and they were systematically altered over time – monitor people’s heart rate, blood pressure and various changes in mood over a 10-minute period while they watched the very large tank (500,000 litres), ”

“As you might expect, people felt a lot more relaxed and significantly happier after watching the tank with more fish – in other words with more biodiversity – and there were significant drops in heart rates and significantly lower blood pressure.”

“Most of the physiological changes happened within the first five minutes and then plateaued out, so it happened quite quickly and then stabilised. However, the psychological measures showed that the benefits continued over the entire exposure – people got happier and happier, basically.”

In order to rule out the possibility that the participants were responding to the biodiversity in the tanks rather than the tranquil environment, the first set of data was gathered while the participants looked at an empty tank, which only contained rocks and lighting etc.

The experiments were carried out during the day while the aquarium was open so people taking part in the experiment were experiencing the normal conditions of the aquarium, such as noise etc.

Dr White added:

“The first thing to notice is that people relaxed, even watching an empty tank, and the benefits increased as we introduced more fish over the course of about a four-week period.”

The team were interested in exploring whether the experiment’s results could be replicated in a medical setting.

“For example, if we were to put a live (video) link into Derriford (the local hospital) into waiting rooms or even into some of the wards and we could show clinically meaningful reductions in heart rate and blood pressure among specific groups, such as hypertension for example, it could be really important for medical reasons,” Dr White suggested.

He also said the findings also highlighted another potential ecosystem service that humans received from biodiversity.

If you flipped our study on its head, and you were to take fish away and be losing biodiversity, what we show is that the predicted losses in biodiversity over time as a result of climate change and other anthropogenic threats could actually undermine human wellbeing in a way that we have not really thought about.

“Potentially, the effects could be quite large and could be another effect of climate change etc that we have not really understood to date.”