The Italian island of Sardinia; The Okinawa islands of Japan; Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; the isolated Greek island of Icaria; Loma Linda, California. All these areas are known as Blue Zones, places where life expectancy is incredibly long.
For decades, scientists have studied the diets and lifestyles of the people living in these areas, trying to figure out what they have in common that could explain their long lifespan.
Research points to their excellent diets, high activity levels, strong sense of family and busy social life.
But there’s another overlooked feature that may account for their longevity. . .
They all live close to the sea. Despite the fact that folks in the Blue Zones have been intensively studied, researchers didn’t pay much attention to this factor.
An exception is Deborah Cracknell, an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Exeter Medical School in England who specializes in exactly that subject. Her primary research focus is on the relationships between people and the marine environment.
In her recently published book By The Sea, she outlines the therapeutic benefits of being in, on and near the water.
Research demonstrates people living near the sea are likely to be happier and healthier than those living inland. Why?
Part of the reason is they tend to be more active by either swimming, surfing, diving or simply walking along the beach.
Sea water provides buoyancy but also creates resistance — aerobic exercise that puts little strain on the joints and improves flexibility. I learned this last year when my doctor prescribed aquatic physical therapy to heal an attack of sciatica.
A half hour of exercising in water gives you a lot more bang for the buck than the same amount of exercise on land.
I don’t know that seaside dwellers actually spend a lot of time in the water, but even walking along the sand is more beneficial than on solid ground because the body absorbs some of the weight and reduces stress on the joints. Abdominal muscles are engaged because the body has to compensate for the uneven surface.
Float and Breathe Away Stress
Floating in sea water actually allows you to absorb magnesium through the skin – a fact I bet few people know. It’s important because it’s common for people to be deficient in this mineral. This may be one of the reasons studies find floating in sea water lowers stress hormones and reduces blood pressure.
When air molecules are broken apart by sunlight or by the movement of air and water, negative ions are generated. These are believed to improve mood, relieve stress and aid sleep, even though there’s little scientific evidence to support this. However, one study did find negative ions had a positive effect on depression.
Soak up the Sun
Vitamin D is now known to have multiple benefits that go well beyond bone health. These include a healthy immune system, better digestive health, mental well-being and cancer prevention.
While it’s true we can get vitamin D from being outdoors anywhere, Dr. Cracknell reminds us, “Studies have found that ultraviolet radiation tends to be greater at the coast because of the effects that the landscape has on the clouds — put simply, more sunshine gets through.”
Coastal walks also give people a better night’s sleep. In one study, 99 adults either walked seven miles along the coast or inland through hills, heathland and parks.
The coastal walkers slept for 47 minutes longer after a walk compared to only 12 additional minutes for inland walkers. They also had better quality sleep and were more alert on wakening.
Dr. Cracknell believes breathing in the fresh sea air, the restorative effect of viewing the sea, and the exercise all combine to give coastal walkers an edge when it comes to sleep quality.
The sound of water, according to Dr. Cracknell, is “extremely restorative and can generate feelings of relaxation.”
In Loja, a beautiful town in the Spanish province of Granada, the streets are full of the sound of water thanks to the numerous fountains.
Such sounds, a University of Granada study discovered, lull us into a more relaxed state by altering wave patterns in the brain. The researchers found people associated the sound of water with positive feelings.
Don’t despair if you can’t get to the coast or vacation at a beach resort very often or at all. Dr. Cracknell suggests you go to a public swimming pool, or run a warm bath with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) and have a good soak.
Other options are to visit a spa with a flotation pod, buy a CD or download apps with wave sounds, or enjoy water from other sources such as rivers and streams.
None of these choices gives quite the same experience as being by the sea, but you’ll still receive many benefits.
- By The Sea by Dr Deborah Cracknell, Aster books, 2019