Living by the sea isn’t just an aspiration for many people—it could be a route to better health. There’s a growing body of research around the benefits of coastal living, ranging from improved mental health and physical activity to relief from certain pain and chronic disease, and even the potential for protective benefits.
But what do physicians need to know—for their patients and themselves—about the benefits of the sea? Here are three ways that research has shown coastal living can contribute to better overall health.
Proximity to the ocean can lower stress
People who visit beaches often do so to relax and clear their minds—people who live by them may have a head start on that front.
A review published in the journal Health & Place has suggested a strong correlation between spending time outdoors and experiencing less stress and better health—eg, improved blood pressure and heart rate, along with self-reported measures of improved health. And some studies show different impacts based on the types of natural spaces that people have access to—even if it’s just a good view.
Another Health & Place report, compiled by researchers from the United States and New Zealand, found that proximity to “blue spaces”—outdoor open areas by the sea—reduced psychological stress more dramatically than “green spaces”—parks and wooded areas, for example.
According to the study, the mere ability to see the ocean regularly made the difference: “Higher levels of blue space visibility were associated with lower psychological distress,” the authors wrote. To control for randomness, the study also used an unrelated indicator of poor physical health—missing teeth—alongside survey questions about psychological distress. The authors found that respondents with more access to blue space were happier and no more likely to lose their teeth.
Researchers say that bodies of water, especially the ocean, can help create a natural calming effect. That might be because of the color of the ocean and sky at the coast: Exposure to shades of blue is believed to create a soothing effect and even boost creativity.
Ocean air can benefit the lungs and more
The rich blend of minerals found in seawater becomes aerosolized as the waves crash into land, creating an equally rich breeze that may have positive lung benefits.
For centuries before modern science, doctors ordered patients with breathing ailments to visit the ocean, believing the ocean air to be curative for the lungs. Only recently has science begun to validate those long-held beliefs with actual research.
Several recent studies have found a correlation between the saline ocean air and better outcomes for patients with cystic fibrosis (CF), which can cause fluid to fill the lungs. The effect is pronounced enough that researchers from the University of Tennessee even made a point to acknowledge it in a study about skeletal manifestations of CF.
“While prehistorically, life expectancy would have been much shorter, it is important to note that living close to the salty air of the ocean would have mitigated CF symptoms,” the authors wrote. “In a bioarchaeological coastal population, an individual with a less-severe gene mutation might have survived longer.”
Other research has found that compounds in sea spray aerosols may potentially have a role in creating potential therapeutic targets in the treatment of cancer and LDL cholesterol, as they can downregulate PCSK9 and inhibit genes associated with the mTOR pathway in lung cells.
Researchers have yet to determine the exact biological benefits of ocean air, but it’s becoming apparent that the doctors of yore weren’t just guessing when they told patients to seek relief at the seaside.
Swimming in the ocean brings health benefits
Looking at the sea and breathing the soothing air can help patients feel better, but the best part of living by the ocean is getting to swim in it.
It’s well-known that physical activities like swimming are vital to maintaining good physical and mental health. According to the CDC, swimming is the fourth-most popular sports activity in the United States, and its health benefits are many: It can improve health in diabetes and heart disease patients, decrease risk of other chronic illnesses, and allow those with muscle or joint pain to exercise more comfortably and for longer. Regular swimmers have also been found to have a significantly lower risk of death compared with inactive people.
Some theorize that the briny blend of salt and other materials found in ocean water can have health benefits that don’t come from swimming in a pool or freshwater. Seawater contains high concentrations of important nutrients like magnesium and potassium that may boost immune health.
There’s also growing evidence that seawater can help alleviate some skin ailments. Researchers often look to the Dead Sea—one of the world’s saltiest, briniest bodies of water—to test hypotheses about its curative potential. In a recent report, Israeli researchers found that children with moderate-to-severe atopic dermatitis who were exposed to water from the Dead Sea had similar disease improvements compared with children who received treatment via topical steroid cream (the typical course of care).
The sea can keep people healthy
Whether swimming in the ocean, taking a long walk on the beach to breathe the refreshing sea air, or staring at the waves from a window, people who live by the ocean have countless opportunities to lead a healthier life, according to studies.
Read more about how your living environment can impact your health and longevity at MDLinx.