Healthy Body

Why the Ocean Is a Place of Healing—Both Physical and Mental

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsSeptember 4, 2020

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When I was growing up, my mom touted two universal salves: Vaseline and ocean water. We lived just 20 minutes from the beach, and whenever I was sad or sick or even just breaking out, my mom would point to the door and tell me to go for a swim. I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that her advice didn’t always work, but from my experience, at least, the big blue has something pretty special to offer when it comes to health and well-being.

The health benefits of swimming in the ocean, or at least spending time in close proximity to ocean water span mind and body, says Abe Malkin, MD, founder of Concierge MD LA. On the most basic level, swimming is a wonderful, low-impact form of breaking a sweat. “[Swimming] improves blood circulation in our bodies,” says Dr. Malkin. A quick dip might also help with joint pain, improve muscular strength and endurance, and promote longevity. That’s really just scratching the surface, though.

Dr. Malkin says the ocean’s mysterious yet well-recorded benefits of lowering stress, anxiety, and heart and breathing rate are what makes slipping on your bathing suit and hitting the coastline super worthwhile. Take one recent study of almost 26,000 subjects, which found those living on the coast to be about 22 percent less likely to report feeling depressed or anxious compared to those who lived about 30 miles away from the waves.

“Most communities are built near bodies of water not just for practical reasons, but because as humans, we’re naturally drawn to blue space.” —Wallace Nichols, PhD

But it’s not just ocean water that offers positive mental and physical effects. Marine biologist Wallace Nichols, PhD, coined the term “blue mind” in his book of the same name to describe the benefits of being near water, which is backed up by the long-held pursuit of civilization to exist near blueness. “Most communities are built near bodies of water not just for practical reasons, but because as humans, we’re naturally drawn to blue space,” he previously told Quartz. The concept of “Blue Mind” applies to living in close proximity to anywhere you could, in theory, swim—meaning, not just the ocean.

Dr. Malkin agrees that the wonder of all water varieties also manifests in its therapeutic benefits (which are just beginning to be studied for the treatment of PTSD, addiction, anxiety disorders, and more). But, the unique composition of seawater (or ocean water) might make that form the best source for these types of therapies. “Seawater contains minerals such as magnesium, sodium, calcium, chloride, and sulfate that have natural benefits for the body,” says Dr. Malkin. “Magnesium helps moisturize the skin and reduces inflammation. People with skin [issues] like eczema or dryness are recommended to take regular baths in salted solutions or swim in the sea.” Studies suggest that the magnesium may even help those with heart disease by dilating the blood vessels and stopping the spasms that occur in the heart vessels—thus preventing heart attacks. It might also help lull you to sleep, adds Dr. Malkin.

While other water sources like lakes, ponds, and even pools may share a similar gravitational blue-mind-inspired pull, the research show that humans agree that there’s something particularly dazzling about the topaz expanse that is the ocean. About 127 million people live in coastal communities, and coastal states receive about 85 percent of all tourism-related revenue in the United States. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of the the people who live in the world’s Blue Zones—regions where the longest-living populations on Earth reside—just so happen to have set up camp near sandy ocean shores.

So, hey—maybe my mom was up to something. Chalk it up to the fact that it’s 90 degrees where I’m currently stationed or that I just wrote an entire article on the health benefits swimming in the ocean, but even still: Now seems as good of a time as ever to find a body of water and dive right in.

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