“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide,
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied…” –John Masefield, Sea Fever
Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the chaos and complexity of life, I find solace in walking the beach. Judging from the number of people I observe spending time in and around the ocean, I conclude that for many of us, the shore is a place of peace, stimulation, enjoyment and deep meaning. After a recent trip to Maine, though, I found myself wondering about the actual measurable health benefits of being close to the ocean. Is it healthier to spend time near the water?
Surprisingly, the data on this topic are quite limited. One study from the European Center for Environment and Human Health explored the ways in which families engaged with their local beach environments. Interestingly, “although families valued the opportunities for physical activity and active play afforded by beaches, the key health benefits emphasized were psychological, including experiencing fun, stress relief and engagement with nature.” In other words, it wasn’t the environment itself but the reduction of stress and sense of connection to the outdoors that were associated with reported health benefits. Moreover, authors found in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies that living near the coast (in England) was associated with better physical and mental health, perhaps again due to stress reduction and increased levels of physical activity.
In addition, the same researchers published a recent study documenting environmental engagement in 2750 English adults who had visited urban parks, countryside and the coast over a period of two years. Authors found “that all outdoor locations were associated with positive feelings (enjoyment, calmness, refreshment), but that visits to the coast were most beneficial and visits to urban parks least beneficial.” Controlling for age of the respondent, travel distance to the outdoor location, presence of other people, and activity engaged in while outside did not change the findings.
So while these data suggest that there is a positive physical and psychological benefit of a coastal environment, there aren’t rigorous studies that have determined why the ocean is so healthy for us. However, there are many proposed, non-scientific, and hypothetical explanations and opinions. These range from a response to the acoustics and temporal pattern of waves to health benefits associated with exposure to salt water and air. I myself think that part of the allure of the sea lies in its vast scope. In a landscape often dominated by concrete, sprawl, highways and sterile environments, the meandering view of coastline and endless span of water provide a deep and meditative reassurance of a natural order far beyond our control. Regardless, it is apparent that, for many of us, the ocean plays a role in our health and well-being, and therefore the important question becomes not so much “Why?” but “How can we get there more often?”