It may seem obvious that the natural environment of the places we live and choose to spend time in can have a very real effect on our wellbeing. However, while coastal regions have long been assumed to be good for a person’s health, the exact reasons have only recently started to be uncovered.
Over a third of the world’s population choose to live along a narrow fringe of coastal land(1). In England, 271 million recreational visits are made to coastal environments every year and more than 22 million people live within 5 miles of the coast(2). Historically, cities have been located on coastlines because there are many important transport, food and ecological benefits. The wealth of a country generally flowed in through its ports and harbours. However, it is only now becoming clear that living on the coast not only provides socio-economical benefits, but also profits both mental and physical wellbeing.
A team of scientists based in Cornwall analysed small-area census data for the population of England and confirmed that the closer a person lives to the coast, the better their health(3). British people who spend time by the sea have reported to be happier, have better general health and are more physically active during their visits, compared to when visiting other environments(4).
Similar to the effects of green spaces, the positive effects of coastal proximity appear to be greater in poorer communities. Interestingly, other researchers from Japan further found that females benefitted more greatly than males from the positive psychological effects of living by the coast(5).
It is presumed that these coastal benefits may be due to the greater opportunities for stress reduction, positive social interactions and physical activity(6), and to the therapeutic effects of the marine and coastal landscapes.
Beaches and cliffs allow for social interactions with friends and family in the form of BBQs or coastal walks. Other social opportunities arise from joining groups, such as marine conservation, beach cleaning or lifesaving clubs. Such activities on the coast tend to be affordable or free, which means that they are accessible, and any potential financial stresses are also reduced.
As well as socialising, the coast provides a playground for a huge range of physical activities – meaning that people who live near the coast are more likely to exercise regularly(7). Coast-based exercises have been shown to have benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing, and can counter chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and dementia(8). For example, surfing alone is associated with increased cardiovascular and muscular fitness, and improved mental-wellbeing of “at risk” young adults, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and individuals with disabilities(9).
In addition, a series of studies have shown that blue spaces are among the most restorative for people suffering from stress. In one study in 2013, the authors used an iPhone app to contact people over the course of several days to ask how they were feeling. The users tagged their responses to their geolocations, and it was found that people were happiest in marine and coastal settings(10).
There are thought to be multiple reasons for the stress-busting nature of aquatic environments. These include the light, soundscapes, quickly changing patterns, meaningful histories and personal associations.
Besides these benefits of the coastal environment as a whole, a myriad of specific individual characteristics have been found to boost human health:
Heat absorption – particularly in urban areas, bodies of water play a critical role in absorbing heat during the day. This heat regulation has been shown to reduce heat-related mortality in people in Portugal.
Noise – waves crashing and other water-based noises can improve health states, either if the noise is heard on its own, in combination with other natural noises (such as birdsong), or if these water sounds mask more unpleasant sounds such as traffic.
Aerosols and negative ions – negative ions produced by crashing waves are thought to help sea mists and sprays (“sea air”) provide positive effects to the respiratory system and for depression. Similarly, there is evidence that yessotoxin, which is produced by marine dinoflagellates, when carried in small quantities in sea mists, can reduce inflammation and improve immunoregulation. However, research in this area is lacking and many secrets currently remain to be revealed.
Vitamin D – while the higher solar irradiance of blue spaces can increase the risk of skin cancer, it can also increase vitamin D production, which has a bundle of benefits for immune, cardiovascular and mental health.
It’s clear that a complex variety of factors help the oceans and coasts to help us. So, while the full picture of how the coasts promote our wellbeing still remains somewhat mysterious, the evidence is clear, the coast is the place to be—just in case you needed an excuse to book that next beach holiday!
- UNEP 2007
- Wellbeing boosted by visiting beaches and coasts, study finds – Defra in the media (blog.gov.uk)
- Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? – European Centre for Environment and Human Health | ECEHH
- Marine and coastal areas linked with better health and well-being – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- Effects of the Coastal Environment on Well-being (longdom.org)
- Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? – ScienceDirect
- Coast_January-2017_BlueHealth.pdf (bluehealth2020.eu)
- Coast_January-2017_BlueHealth.pdf (bluehealth2020.eu)
- Blue space, health and well-being: A narrative overview and synthesis of potential benefits – ScienceDirect