For centuries, people living by the sea and holiday-goers have basked in the seaside atmosphere, feeling an inexplicable revitalization and peace. This coastal allure, often attributed to the calming lull of the waves and the salty air, has only begun to capture scientific interest in recent years.
In a new study led by Sandra Geiger from the Environmental Psychology Group at the University of Vienna, this coastal mystique has been rigorously examined.
Geiger’s research confirms an old belief in a novel way: living near or even just visiting the seaside is positively associated with improved health. This holds true regardless of one’s country of residence or personal income level.
The concept that proximity to the ocean could foster better health isn’t entirely novel. We can trace this idea back to 1660, when English physicians started advocating for sea bathing and coastal strolls as wellness practices.
By the mid-19th century, indulging in “the waters” or breathing in the “sea air” became common health remedies among the affluent Europeans.
However, the advent of technological advancements in medicine during the early 20th century brought about a decline in these natural wellness traditions. Only recently has the medical profession started to rekindle this interest.
Geiger’s study falls under the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project named Seas, Oceans, and Public Health In Europe, under the stewardship of Professor Lora Fleming.
Collaborating with scholars from the Universities of Vienna, Exeter, Birmingham, Seascape Belgium, and the European Marine Board, Geiger’s team surveyed over 15,000 respondents.
The participants hailed from 14 European countries (including Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom) and Australia. The survey sought their thoughts on various marine-associated activities and their personal health.
The findings, recently published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, even took the researchers by surprise.
“It is striking to see such consistent and clear patterns across all 15 countries. We also now demonstrate that everybody seems to benefit from being near the seaside, not just the wealthy. Although the associations are relatively small, living near and especially visiting the coast can still have substantial effects on population health,” said Geiger.
Understanding these potential coastal benefits is crucial for future policymaking. Dr. Paula Kellett from the European Marine Board emphasized, “The substantial health benefits of equal and sustainable access to our coasts should be considered when countries develop their marine spatial plans, consider future housing needs, and develop public transportation links.”
But what does this research mean for those living in landlocked regions, such as Geiger and her Austrian colleagues?
“Austrians and other central Europeans visit the coasts in their millions during the summer months, so they too get to experience some of these benefits,” explained Geiger. “Besides, we are also starting to appreciate the similar health benefits offered by inland waters such as lakes and natural pools.”
This suggests that it’s not just coastal areas that provide health benefits – it seems that water bodies, in general, could be key to promoting public health.
Research over the past few years has begun to uncover various ways that living near or interacting with the ocean can impact human health, both physically and mentally.
Spending time in and around the ocean can have several physical health benefits. For example, swimming in the sea can be a great form of exercise, which can improve cardiovascular health, help with weight management, and strengthen muscles.
Furthermore, exposure to sunlight by the beach helps the body produce vitamin D, which is essential for bone health and immune function. Seawater contains various minerals like magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which may offer benefits like improving skin conditions and providing relief from rheumatic discomfort.
The ocean’s natural environment can significantly benefit mental health. The simple act of observing the ocean can induce feelings of calm and relaxation, helping to reduce stress and anxiety. The sound of waves has a soothing effect that can promote better sleep. Activities such as surfing, sailing, or simply walking along the beach can also be forms of mindfulness exercises that can improve mental well-being.
Beaches and coastal areas often serve as social gathering spots, promoting social interaction and community engagement. These interactions can contribute positively to overall well-being and life satisfaction.
A concept gaining attention in health research is that of “blue spaces” – areas where people can interact with sea, lakes, rivers, or other water bodies. Studies have found that these spaces can have restorative effects, leading to better mental well-being, reduced stress, and increased physical activity.
However, it’s important to note that while the health benefits of coastal living and ocean interaction are substantial, they must be balanced with potential risks such as overexposure to sun, water pollution, and natural hazards like strong currents or storms.