By Lily Anderson
Staff Writer for Wake Up World
As anyone who has ever yearned to live on the coast will know: the sea has an extraordinary ability to heal and nourish the human spirit. Recent scientific research, led by Sandra Geiger from the Environmental Psychology Group at the University of Vienna, unravels the mysteries behind this instinctive wisdom.
The study’s findings, derived from a vast international dataset encompassing 15 countries, confirm what we’ve always sensed deep within: the coastal environment exerts a profoundly positive influence on our health and well-being, transcending borders and socioeconomic divides.
A Historical Connection
The belief in the transformative power of the ocean is woven into the tapestry of human history.
As far back as 1660, wise English physicians extolled the virtues of sea bathing and coastal walks as restorative practices. By the mid-1800s, “the waters” and “sea air” became revered as panaceas for the European elite.
Sadly, the advent of modern medical technology in the 20th century momentarily overshadowed these ancient traditions. Yet, as our collective consciousness expands, we are rediscovering the immense potential of coastal environments as holistic sources of well-being.
The Ground Breaking Study
Under the leadership of Professor Lora Fleming, the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Seas, Oceans, and Public Health In Europe” embarked on a revolutionary exploration of the nexus between coastal environments and human health.
Sandra Geiger and her exceptional team, comprising researchers from prestigious institutions such as the Universities of Vienna, Exeter, and Birmingham, as well as Seascape Belgium and the European Marine Board, orchestrated an extensive survey involving over 15,000 participants across 14 European countries and Australia. Their mission: to unravel the perceptions of marine-related activities and their profound impact on personal health.
The outcomes of this study, published in the esteemed journal Communications Earth and Environment, left researchers astonished. Lead author Sandra Geiger shares her amazement, stating
The consistent and clear patterns we observed across all 15 countries were truly striking. Equally remarkable is the fact that the health benefits extend to everyone, not just the affluent. While the associations may be modest, living near and especially visiting the coast can still yield substantial effects on population health.
The Blue Mind Theory
To fully grasp the significance of these remarkable findings, it’s helpful to consider the captivating theory of “blue mind.” Coined by esteemed marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, blue mind speaks to the cognitive and emotional advantages bestowed upon us when we find ourselves in proximity to water.
Whether it be oceans, rivers, lakes, or even smaller bodies of water, the blue mind theory suggests that being near water has a transformative impact on our mental and emotional well-being. The study led by Sandra Geiger beautifully aligns with the blue mind theory, providing empirical evidence that living near or visiting the seaside undeniably does lead to improved health outcomes.
Watch – Blue Mind: Water Is Medicine by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols
Implications for Policy and Society
Recognizing the potential health benefits of coastal access for all members of society carries profound implications for shaping policy decisions. Dr. Paula Kellett from the European Marine Board emphasizes the need to consider “the substantial health benefits of equal and sustainable access to our coasts” when formulating marine spatial plans, addressing future housing needs, and developing public transportation links. By prioritizing equitable and sustainable coastal access, policymakers can create a society that thrives in harmony with the sea.
The Inland Waters Connection
While the study primarily focuses on coastal environments, it prompts us to reflect upon the untapped benefits offered by inland waters.
Geiger acknowledges that individuals residing in landlocked regions, like herself and her colleagues in Austria, may lack direct coastal access. However, millions of central Europeans flock to the coasts during the summer months, allowing them to bask in the ocean’s wellness-giving properties.
Furthermore, Geiger explains that science is also beginning to understand that inland waters such as lakes, pools, waterfalls, and riverways also offer many of the same health and wellness benefits. It seems that the mystical allure of water for the human soul is not limited to the oceans alone.
There are many demonstrable reasons why the ocean or other bodies of water have physical health benefits for us.
From increased opportunities for physical exercise such as swimming and water sports to the calming, soothing lull of simply listening to the waves or padding barefoot along the shore, the sea has always been an important source of wellness.
When you add in the sense of awe and wonder we experience as we watch the ocean, and our deeply felt spiritual connection to water of all kinds, the results of this ground breaking study are perhaps not surprising.
But if its results are taken seriously by policymakers in key areas, the mystical benefits of “blue mind” can be shared more widely through society, to the immense benefit of us all.
- Sandra J. Geiger, Mathew P. White, Sophie M. C. Davison, Lei Zhang, Oonagh McMeel, Paula Kellett, Lora E. Fleming. Coastal proximity and visits are associated with better health but may not buffer health inequalities. Communications Earth & Environment, 2023; 4 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s43247-023-00818-1
About the author:
Lily Anderson is a passionate wordsmith and dedicated explorer of cutting-edge scientific inquiries. Fuelled by a thirst for knowledge, she skilfully transforms intricate ideas into relatable tales, inviting readers to embark on a captivating expedition of revelation. Lily’s efforts play a crucial role in bridging the gap between experts and the wider public, evoking a sense of awe and encouraging insightful discussions about groundbreaking scientific advancements.