If you are lucky enough to live near a coastline, you have a great opportunity to leverage it for better fitness and mental health
I am luckier than most. I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a coastal region of the Pacific North West, where I am able to access one of the Earth’s greatest treasures — the ocean.
Being near an ocean creates an indescribable feeling of calmness and peace for many people. It turns out that there is a scientific reason for this.
I came across a concept called the ‘blue gym’ that “refers to using the coastal environment specifically to promote health and wellbeing by increasing physical activity, reducing stress and building stronger communities.”
As an environmentalist who lives near the Pacific Ocean, I sought to seek answers as to how the ocean can promote my own health and wellbeing, so I made it my own personal mission to visit the beach at least twice a week to see if there was a connection between the ocean and human health.
Before delving into my own experience, we need to understand what the blue gym exactly is and what research has already found.
In 2009, researchers Michael H. Depledge and William J. Bird, with the support of the United Kingdom, developed the blue gym initiative.
The blue gym initiative aims to address two questions:
- Whether blue space* environments might be positively related to human health and well-being
- Whether the public could be encouraged to preserve and protect these environments
*For this specific research, a blue space environment included coastal ecosystems. However, a blue space can also include inland rivers, lakes, ponds, etc… Essentially anything that is considered a body of water.
In general, natural environments — green and blue — have been linked to positive health outcomes in the following categories:
- Stress reduction
- Physical activity
- Social interactions
- Environmental quality
Data from Natural England’s national survey of outdoor leisure visits were examined and focused on “4255 visits where people reported how the visit had helped them to feel calm, relaxed, refreshed and revitalized (i.e. less stressed).”
When comparing blue spaces to green spaces, researchers found two key findings:
- People who lived near a coast were more likely to re-visit the sea than people who lived near a green space
- People visiting coasts recorded greater feelings of stress reduction
In England, where this study takes place, the government recommends 30 minutes or more of physical activity five days a week.
The study found that compared to individuals living 20 km away from the coast, people living 1 km away from the coast were 8% more likely to follow the recommendations, and individuals living 1–5 km were 4% more likely to follow the guidelines of physical activity.
In a series of interviews, researchers interviewed parents and children separately to gain qualitative data about their experiences at the beach.
An interesting finding was that the children, particularly, regarded the beach as a setting where the parents participated in activities that were not present in other types of settings. One 11-year-old boy from the study said:
“Instead of the adults just sitting somewhere on a bench while the kids do activities, they get up and they play frisbee or cricket and football and sometimes go swimming with them.’’
Not surprisingly, those who live close to the coast experienced increased exposure to ultraviolet rays (UVR). UVR can cause serious damage to the skin, however, “higher exposure UVR promotes the synthesis of vitamin D, which itself is important for a range of health outcomes (e.g. autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers).”
It was also found that coastal populations showcased higher levels of 25(OH)D, a marker of vitamin D status. This is especially important during winter months where vitamin D is less readily available in locations such as England.
Also interestingly enough, researchers found that individuals living near the coast resulted in the greatest health benefits for those coming from poorer neighborhoods than those coming from wealthier ones.
One reason that researchers pointed out as to why poorer neighborhoods benefit greatly from being close to bodies of waters is because
“the coast offers a range of relatively cost-free, health-promoting opportunities (e.g. stress reduction and physical activity) in an attractive environment that individuals with limited economic resources could nonetheless profit from.”
It is hypothesized that because wealthier individuals have greater access to resources to promote their health, the significance of aquatic environments on their mental and physical health is less so.
It is clear that coastal ecosystems bring about many health and wellbeing benefits to the human body, however, there are significant limitations to access these benefits.
The most obvious being that coastal living is inaccessible. For example, the English words “sea” and “view” are considered to be the most expensive words in the English language because people are willing to pay significant prices for homes and hotel rooms that are close to the ocean.
There are millions of people who may never see the ocean in their lifetime and therefore cannot benefit from a blue gym as we understand it.
The other being that the research study only looks at coastal environments. I would argue that additional research would need to take place in order to understand the benefits of aquatic environments in general, such as rivers, lakes, and marshlands — areas that are more easily accessible for individuals who do not live near a coastline.
For full transparency, I live approximately 2 km away from a coastline, which is extremely close.
In the past month, I visited my local beaches at least twice a week. This past week, I actually visited three times because of the warm weather.
When visiting the beach, it did indeed invoke feelings of restoration and improved my mental and physical health. I felt much calmer the past month than I have this whole year. I believe there are other factors that have contributed to this, however, visits to the beach are some of the big highlights from my weeks.
I also found myself living a much more active lifestyle. In the past month, my average step count increased to an average of 10,009 steps a day from 5,089 steps the weeks before.
Each day at the beach felt unique and special, something I did not expect as I was visiting some of the same beaches multiple times.
As a young adult, the beach provided an environment that I could meet friends safely while still following social guidelines. It provided much-needed social interactions in a low-pressure setting. It definitely beats virtual video calls which have dominated our lives.
It is important to note that realistically I am not able to go to the beach all the time, so on the other days, I made sure that I visited local parks nearby or exercised outdoors. Green spaces are also known for improving health and wellbeing, which also helped immensely.
Even though my one-month experiment is officially done, I can confidently say that incorporating visits to an aquatic environment, such as the beach, will become part of my weekly routine even when the weather is less than ideal.
There is a significant privilege for those of us who live near a coastline that also benefits our health and wellbeing. However, in reading this fascinating study it reaffirmed a general principle that cannot be ignored.
In general, natural spaces can promote health and wellbeing and it doesn’t need to be an aquatic environment.
Although it was recorded that there were more feelings of restoration (i.e. stress reduction) for individuals who visited coastal ecosystems vs. green spaces, green spaces still provide fantastic avenues for people to go outside, exercise, and de-stress.
In fact, Scotland is a country that has authorized its doctors to prescribe walking in nature as a “medicine” because there are significant benefits of health and wellbeing connected to our outdoor spaces.
My two main points in writing this article:
- For those of us who do live near a coastline — take advantage. Make time to walk along the coast or even do a beach workout in order to experience the benefits yourself.
- For those of us who do not live near a coastline — go outside. Visit a park, river, lake, or another nature space in order to experience the benefits of nature.
There is so much of our natural world to experience and it is clear that our natural environments can provide increased positive health and wellbeing. This is something we should not ignore.