When you think about visiting Cornwall, you’re almost certainly looking forward to the unique sensation that comes from stepping onto a beach for the first time in months. It’s that feeling of instant relaxation, a sigh that flows through your entire body as the sea air fills your lungs and the sound of the waves roll over you.
This is an experience that can only be found at the seaside and it’s one that people have been searching out for centuries – but what exactly are the health benefits of ‘taking the sea air’?
Studies in Blue Health
It’s only in the past few decades that scientists have begun to pin down what is happening to our minds and bodies when we’re by the coast.
Researchers in ‘Blue Health’ at the University of Exeter have highlighted how time spent in or near the ocean can improve physical and mental wellbeing, raising levels of vitamin D, boosting our mental health, even benefiting sociability.
Their 2013 survey of 20,000 smartphone users found that the coast is by far the happiest place to be. Compared to spending time in the city they found the difference was as great as “attending an exhibition and doing housework.”
The miraculous properties of sea air
Getting out in the fresh air is obviously beneficial, particularly after spending a prolonged period of time in a polluted city. But what does the ocean have over the fresh scent of a pine forest or clear mountain air?
Sea spray is actually full of negative ions that improve the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. So inhaling salty air can actually improve lung function and, for hay fever sufferers, blow away the pollen.
The link between sea and sleep
Visiting the seaside tends to make you more physically active. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking part in high impact exercise like surfing or sea kayaking; a simple walk on the beach or 20 minutes swimming each day can make a big difference.
Seawater is rich in magnesium, helping relax your muscles and improving sleep. In her research for the National Trust, environmental psychologist Eleanor Ratcliffe found that taking a 7 mile walk along a coastal path helps people sleep for an average of 47 minutes more per night, compared to just 12 minutes extra after an equivalent inland walk.
The right wavelength
You don’t even have to get in the sea to enjoy its benefits; spending time in a place with a view of the ocean can also have mental health benefits. The sea is psychologically restorative, improving mood and reducing stress levels.
There’s something about connecting with the ebb and flow of the tides that allows you to stop focusing on negative thoughts and tune into the environment. These meditative qualities can be felt whether you are swimming or simply watching the waves crashing over the shore.
For most of human history we have feared the ocean, seeing its great power as something best avoided.
The Victorians were the first to really connect its health and social benefits. Seaside holidays became popular among all classes, allowing people to escape the restrictions of their day to day lives. They found that making new social connections was simply easier by the coast.
This is thought to be because we experience a sense of ‘small self’ when surrounded by the vast coastal environment. As a result, the sense of self-importance we wear as a social cloak in towns and cities can be cast aside, making us happier and feel better.