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How simply being near the sea can benefit your health

Research shows that spending time in, on or by the ocean could lower your risk of certain diseases

14 April 2019 - 00:00 By and andrea nagel
People are drawn to water because it evokes feelings of tranquility and relaxation.
People are drawn to water because it evokes feelings of tranquility and relaxation.
Image: 123RF/Dmbaker

You get mountain people and bush people, city people and sea people. I am, without a doubt, a sea person. Hunched over my desk at work, Monday to Friday, in the landlocked city of Joburg, at the edge of a smoggy mining town, I keep myself sane by dreaming of holidays by the sea.

A jolt from the icy waters of the Atlantic works for me just as well as the tepid waters teeming with fish on the warm shores of the Indian islands. Once my toes have touched the water, I don't want to get out.

I love diving with the ocean's multitude of creatures, playing in the breakers or practising my shoddy surfing technique. Yet it's equally pleasurable to sit on the beach and stare for hours at the changing light on the water, or stroll along the damp sand where the water meets the shore.

"Why do we love the sea?" asked Robert Henri. "It is because it has some potent power to make us think things we like to think." And thinking things we like to think is an important source of relaxation.

To make this point and explain the many tangible benefits we can achieve from what she calls "blue health", "blue mind" and the "blue gym", Dr Deborah Cracknell has written a book, By The Sea: The Therapeutic Benefits of Being In, On and By the water. 

"Spending time in and around the sea is a rich experience that engages all five senses," she writes. "The sight of the blue sea, the sound of breaking waves, the smell of the ocean, the taste of salt on your lips, the feeling of warm sand between your toes or the cool water all around you are all sensory experiences that create positive feelings and emotions and enhance our wellbeing."

The author grew up in Plymouth on the southwest coast of England spending as much time as possible playing by the sea. After a brief stint in the financial services, she completed a PhD focused on the benefits of watching marine life in aquariums. She spent the next six years researching the effects of different marine species on psychological and/or physiological health and wellbeing.

Only in the past few decades, notes Cracknell, have scientists started to consider nature's effect on health - and people are drawn to water because it evokes feelings of tranquility and relaxation.

Much research has been focused on green space, says Cracknell. Blue space, specifically the sea, has been less well studied.

Cracknell looks at a myriad interesting facts about the benefits of being close to the sea. For one, she talks about "Blue Zones" - places in the world where people live particularly long. Sardinia, an Italian island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, is one of them. The Japanese island Okinawa is another, and so are the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Icaria in Greece, and Loma Linda in California, US.

These "Blue Zones" have high numbers of people over 100 years old and "many have grown old without the health problems that commonly affect people in the developed world, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer".

Breathing in sea air promotes a better night's sleep
Dr Deborah Cracknell

Breathing in sea air, she adds, also promotes a better night's sleep. Studies have shown that walking by the coast almost always results in better, longer sleep because of a combination of the restorative effect of viewing the sea, breathing fresh air and a mild amount of exercise.

Recently, says the author, we have seen the establishment of the "Blue Gym" initiative. It is based on the Green Gym idea (exercise mixed with conservation activities) and has two main aims: to understand the potential for "natural" aquatic settings to promote health; and to increase public awareness of marine issues and encourage people to protect and preserve these environments.

The term "Blue Exercise" was coined to refer to activities in the water (swimming), on the water (surfing, kayaking, paddleboarding), under the water (diving), or by the water (walking on the beach). These activities have been proven to lower the risk of heart disease and strokes, type 2 diabetes, and colon and breast cancer. They increase longevity, lower the risk of osteoarthritis and hip fracture, and bring about lower rates of depression and dementia.

Added to this, there is also animal-assisted therapy to take into account. Most people love to be in contact with the ocean's fauna and flora, and studies have proven that they feel better and more restored after experiencing marine life. There have even been great results shown from initiatives like dolphin-assisted therapy. Proponents of it say that it ameliorates conditions like autism, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, depression and cancer.

Cracknell suggests a range of activities to maximise the benefits of ocean proximity. Play in rock pools, build sand castles, paint and draw ocean scenes, watch wildlife, collect sea glass, meditate, hold a picnic, do yoga or other exercise (the soft sand reduces stress on the joints), body-board, float, gaze at the stars from the beach and even enjoy the bounty of the ocean in the form of seafood.

"Whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / It's always ourself we find at the sea," wrote poet EE Cummings.

• 'By the Sea: The Therapeutic Benefits of Being In, On and By the Water' by Dr Deborah Cracknell is published by Aster


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