The health benefits of sea air
Bucket-and-spade beaches; craggy coastal paths; windswept dunes; sticks of rock and fish and chips… The British seaside means something different to each of us, but the benefits of life on the coast are universal – it can lower stress levels, may increase immunity and encourage us to live healthier lifestyles and have closer community connections, according to recent scientific studies. The good news is that even day-trippers can feel the benefits.
I moved from London to Brighton almost 20 years ago because I’d fallen in love with the bohemian, beachy vibe. It was tough at first as I was commuting daily to my job in the capital but I still remember the sensation of my shoulders dropping and my lungs filling with fresh, salty air as I stepped out of the train station each evening. Now I’m fortunate enough to work from home, so in the summer I can take my laptop to the beach or go for a run along the undercliff if I want a break. I feel uplifted and refreshed by the drift of sea mist and the glint of sun on the waves – so I’ve asked the experts why it has this effect.
‘Our research looks at the positive impact of the natural landscape on our wellbeing, particularly the green and blue spaces of parks, countryside and watery areas,’ says Ben Wheeler, senior research fellow at Exeter University’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH). ‘We can see that a mix of green and blue environments is most beneficial, which supports our findings that the closer people live to the coast, the healthier they report feeling.’ Reasons include stress reduction (even a city beach counts, apparently, especially if you’re looking out to the sea and away from the amusements and arcades); an increase in physical activity by those living in coastal areas; and more positive social interaction. Ben and his colleagues are currently investigating whether the benefits of being by the sea can be transformed to other situations, such as residential homes and even dental surgeries. ‘There’s an EU-funded study called Blue Health, which is looking at how we can bring the beneficial aspects of watery environments into clinical settings,’ Ben says. ‘At the ECEHH, we’re even using virtual reality headsets with beach scenes to see if they can create a reduction in the feeling of pain, particularly for people with dental anxiety.’
Researchers also have a theory to explain why listening to waves makes us feel calmer. ‘It’s called attention restoration,’ Ben explains. ‘Our ability to concentrate is a limited resource that we deplete as we use it, whether that’s driving to the shops or focusing at work. In an environment like the beach, we use what’s called “soft attention” to engage with our surroundings, and it helps to replenish our mental reserves.’
Time at the coast doesn’t just benefit our mental wellbeing. Dr Anton Alexandroff of the British Association of Dermatologists says bathing in the sea may offer relief for people with eczema or dermatitis. ‘Studies show that the magnesium in seawater may improve the barrier function of the skin, so it becomes less dry and rough,’ he says. ‘We also know that UVB light can improve symptoms of some skin conditions and it might be that we increase our exposure to daylight when we’re enjoying time at the coast,’ he continues.
Sea air is full of negative ions – these are charged particles abundant in sea spray, which, research suggests, improve our ability to absorb oxygen. Some studies indicate they may help us to feel more alert, and Professor Pierce J Howard from the US Centre for Applied Cognitive Sciences says, ‘They might help decrease irritation from particles that make you sneeze, cough or have a throat irritation.’ Other studies have shown that inhaling salty air improved lung function in people with a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. Hay fever sufferers may benefit from a few hearty gusts of sea air, too. ‘Onshore breezes can blow away pollen-laden air, although that has to be balanced against the chance of offshore breezes blowing pollen at you. If that’s the case, at least you can dive into the sea and wash it all off,’ says airborne allergy expert Max Wiseberg (haymax.biz).
My husband and I laugh because, even though we live by the sea, we always choose a coastal spot for our family holidays and regularly rent the same cottage on the Isle of Wight because the waves literally lap the bottom of the garden. For us, there’s no place we relax more – or have as much fun with our kids – as when we’re hanging out on the beach. ‘We’ve interviewed families about their feelings about being by the sea,’ says Ben Wheeler. ‘Kids tell us that it’s the place where their parents play with them. Maybe it’s because of our childhood associations with the seaside but adults tend to play more. Our studies show that these environments give us the opportunity to have better conversations and to spend time doing activities we enjoy, such as fishing and swimming.’ Or, if you’re my family, flying kites, playing crazy golf and skateboarding. ‘You don’t need to live by the sea to experience its effects; the benefits of a blue or green space are felt within minutes,’ says Ben Wheeler. ‘What we don’t know yet is how long they last.’
Until they do, why not book your next dose of fresh sea air? The furthest point from the coast in the UK is only 70 miles, according to Ordnance Survey, so pack a picnic and your swimming costume and get ready to dip your toe in the (sea)water of beachside wellness…