We've waded through the extensive research out there to share ten science-backed ways being by the sea benefits body and mind...
(6 minute read)
Research is increasingly highlighting the ocean as a therapeutic environment, capturing the human imagination and interrupting the momentum of daily life with its dynamic rhythms, sounds, scents and scenes.
– Dr Sarah Bell, European Centre for Environment and Human Health
With the health benefits of coastal environments highlighted in Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty’s annual report no less, the evidence that being by the sea is good for body and mind is mounting almost month by month.
From better sleep to boosted social bonds, discover ten science-backed benefits proximity to the ocean brings.
For Michael Wenger, dean of Buddhist studies at the San Francisco Zen Centre, moving water equals meditative noise. “Each individual may hear a different song in the water,” he told Psychology Today.
Just listening to the sound – not tying it to anything, just letting the sound wash over you – is a way of letting go of your ideas and directly experiencing things as they are.
Research supports this, with the sounds of the ocean having a measurable effect on mental wellbeing and helping to reduce stress. A 2013 study found that the sound of waves relaxed subjects more than soothing music, with the lowest concentrations of cortisol found in those listening to rippling water. In a later study, seaside sounds activated the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and relaxing the body.
A 2019 study revealed that spending time on the coast is associated with increased physical activity. While surfing, sailing, paddleboarding and swimming all feature in the shoreside gym, walking, in particular, was found to be more common in coastal than inland areas, with people more likely to lace up their hiking boots if they’re by the sea.
Photo credit: James Bowden
A recent study by the University of Cambridge suggests that swimming in cold water (like the cool Atlantic) could help protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
The study found that people who regularly swim in cold water have higher levels of a so-called ‘cold-shock’ protein in their blood. The protein, which helps form synapses, has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes in mice.
Referred to as ‘fingerprints of nature’, fractals are intricate patterns that repeat themselves infinitely across different scales, creating shapes of rich visual complexity. Common fractals found in nature include snowflakes, clouds – and ocean waves.
Scientists have studied the human response to these hypnotic natural fractals, with intriguing results. A 1986 NASA study (referenced here) measured a striking 44% reduction in participants’ stress response when viewing images of natural fractal patterns.
It seems gazing at the immersive ebb and flow of the tide triggers a calming effect. Speaking to BBC Radio 4, one of the lead academics on the pioneering Blue Health research project, Dr Matthew White, said:
The water catches your attention – there are movement changes, light changes. But it’s gentle and non-threatening. And we’ve got some evidence to suggest that people – particularly with anxiety and depression – are able to have less maladaptive rumination and thoughts while walking on the beach, and think more about external things – the natural environment, rather than their own issues.
When 73% of respondents in a YouGov survey said sea air “makes them sleep better,” they probably didn’t realise their experience is based on scientific fact.
Dr Natasha Bijlani, a psychiatrist from London’s Priory’s Roehampton Hospital, told Metro: “Sea air is good for sleep because it’s generally cleaner and fresher, with higher levels of oxygen, which can improve sleep.”
Sea air contains negative ions; oxygen atoms with an extra electron, which boost your body’s ability to absorb oxygen and help balance serotonin levels.
It’s perhaps this same relaxing effect that helped the subjects of a 2015 study by the National Trust to sleep almost an hour longer the night after an invigorating coastal hike.
In an extensive study on happiness in natural environments, 20,000 smartphone users recorded marine and coastal margins as the ‘happiest’ locations – by a long way.
And, if you immerse yourself in the water on a brisk day, you could boost your dopamine levels by a whopping 250%, according to a study on cold water therapy. Often called the happy hormone, dopamine is a key chemical messenger within our inbuilt reward system, with a lack of dopamine contributing to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Whether it’s a barbecue on the beach with friends or a family rock-pooling session, coastal spaces provide unique and plentiful opportunities for social interaction.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Dr Matthew White said, “We all know how important strong social bonds are for mental health, and blue spaces are a great social leveller.”
Whereas data suggests that national parks, forests and woodlands tend to be used by the richest third of the country, “Blue spaces are used by all sectors of society,” says Dr White.
Given the rates of poor mental health are highest in poorer communities, then this makes blue spaces even more important for reducing inequalities in mental health.
Photo credit: James Bowden
Revitalising and refreshing, seawater is rich in nourishing minerals such as magnesium, calcium, zinc and selenium – many of which have powerful anti-inflammatory, skin-healing effects. A review of its benefits found that sea bathing improves the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis, reduces allergic skin responses and soothes sensitive, dry skin.
In a recent survey, 66% of UK adults agreed that being by the sea “melts their troubles away”.
This lifting of mental distress is mirrored in research by Dr Jo Garrett of the University of Exeter. Looking at data from 26,000 people, Dr Garrett found that those closest to the coast had “better mental health” than those further away, with a distance of less than 1km thought to be the ideal door-to-shore journey for optimum mental wellbeing.
Further research has even linked visits to blue spaces such as the beach with a lower likelihood of using medication for depression.
Photo credit: Emma Solley, read an artist's motivation
The colour of deep seas, wide skies and turquoise coves, blue is eternally associated with marine environments. But could this evocative coastal tone affect wellbeing?
From Hokusai’s Great Wave to Picasso’s ‘Blue period’ (from 1900 to 1904, he painted exclusively in shades of blue), it’s a colour that has long inspired artists. Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky once said, “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure.” And the idea of the colour blue as an artistic stimulus is supported by science, with a 2009 study finding that blue brings a measurable chromatic creativity boost.
Blue has also been linked with feelings of calm and serenity. Incredibly, after installing blue lights at train stations, Japan recorded an 84% decrease in the number of suicides. It seems blue can make us feel more at ease, too – with shoppers found to spend more time – and more money – in stores with blue interiors. It’s this same relaxing effect that often leads designers to choose the colour blue to decorate potentially stress-inducing offices.
So there you have it: abundant justification to gaze at the sea for as long as you like…
Journey further into colour theory, associations and the world’s favourite colour with artist and paperhead Mark Jessett
Read our Big Blue feature – diving deeper into the subject of blue health and blue mind theory with everyone from writers Wallace J Nichols and Joe Minihane to world champion freediver Tanya Streeter.