Many people dream of living near the ocean, and perhaps there’s an intrinsic reason why. Coastal living may be good for mental health, according to a study by researchers from the University of Exeter, England.1 The research builds on prior studies linking natural environments to mental health and well-being, and suggests that you may be able to boost your mood and more by choosing to live near the sea.
In the U.S., counties directly on a shoreline make up less than 10% of total land area (with the exception of Alaska), yet 39% of the population resides in them.2 Further, more people continue to seek out coastal living.
According to the National Ocean Service (NOS), the population of U.S. counties directly on the shoreline increased by nearly 40% from 1970 to 2010, and it’s estimated to increase by another 8% (or 10 million people) by 2020.3
“Coastal areas are substantially more crowded than the U.S. as a whole, and population density in coastal areas will continue to increase in the future. In fact, the population density of coastal shoreline counties is over six times greater than the corresponding inland counties,” NOS noted,4 and perhaps the boost to mental health is one reason why.
Living Near the Coast Is Good for Mental Health
Previously, it was revealed that general health in England is higher among those living closer to the coast. Further, the association was strongest among lower income groups.
For the featured study, researchers used data from the Health Survey for England, which surveyed 25,963 adults from 2008 to 2012. They compared respondents’ health to their proximity to the sea in order to determine if similar findings held true for mental health.
The results showed that urban adults living 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) or less from the coast had better mental health than those living more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) away.5 When the data were analyzed as a whole, there was a 20% reduction in poor mental health for those living near the coast compared to those who were farther away.
However, when household income was factored in, the study showed that for the lowest income respondents, there was a 40% lower risk of poor mental health for those living within a kilometer of the coast compared to those living 50 km away.
Even among those living between 1 km and 5 km (3.1 miles) from the coast, there was a 25% lower risk of poor mental health compared to those living farther away.6 The researchers explained:7
“Stratifying by household income revealed that the relationship between coastal proximity and mental health outcomes was present only for those with the lowest household incomes and extended to <5 km.
Specifically, the results imply that people living in urban areas in the lowest household income quintile are less likely to suffer from a common mental disorder (CMD) such as anxiety or depression if they live within 5 km of the coast, compared to those living in urban areas further inland (>50 km).
In particular, living within 1 km of the coast is associated with the strongest reductions in CMD likelihood for people from the most economically deprived households.”
Jo Garrett, who led the study, said in a news release, “Our research suggests, for the first time, that people in poorer households living close to the coast experience fewer symptoms of mental health disorders. When it comes to mental health, this ‘protective’ zone could play a useful role in helping to level the playing field between those on high and low income.”8
‘Blue Spaces’ Support Good Health
There’s been a lot of press about the positive role green spaces have on human health, and now researchers are turning their attention to “blue spaces,” i.e., bodies of water, and their effects on health. In Europe, the BlueHealth project is looking into how inland waterways and coasts affect health promotion and disease. Among their previous findings:
- Living nearer to the coast was associated with better general and mental health, in part because it encourages participation in land-based outdoor activities, especially walking.9
- When an urban riverside area in Barcelona, Spain, was renovated, there was a 25% increase in users of the space, which could promote physical activity and social interactions, leading to improvements in health and well-being.10
- The urban riverside park regeneration was estimated to boost physical activity among adult users, leading to an annual reduction of 7.3 deaths and 6.2 cases of diseases. “This corresponds to 11.9 DALYs [disability-adjusted life years] and an annual health-economic impact of 23.4 million euros [$ 25.6 million].”11
Canadian research also revealed that living near water reduced the risk of premature death by 12% to 17% among urban residents, particularly for deaths related to stroke or respiratory-related causes.12
The researchers suggested more research is needed to determine why blue spaces boost health, but other experts have suggested it could be “due to opportunities for stress reduction and increased physical activity,” especially in socioeconomically deprived communities.13
There’s also evidence that sea spray from the ocean may have a cleansing effect on air pollution, perhaps leading to cleaner air.14 Likewise, in Wellington, New Zealand, increased blue space visibility was linked with lower psychological stress,15 and a study in older adults found those with the greatest sea view had lower levels of depression.16 Among older adults in Hong Kong, researchers noted:17
“Those with a view of blue space from the home were more likely to report good general health, while intentional exposure was linked to greater odds of high well-being. Visiting blue space regularly was more likely for those within a 10-15 min walk, and who believed visit locations had good facilities and wildlife present.
Longer blue space visits, and those involving higher intensity activities, were associated with higher recalled well-being. Our evidence suggests that, at least for older citizens, Hong Kong’s blue spaces could be an important public health resource.”
University students also benefit from blue space, which is “psychologically restorative” in the urban environment.18 Notably, the benefits of blue spaces extend beyond oceans to include freshwater blue spaces, like the North American Great Lakes. In fact, both distance to the Great Lakes and percentage of inland lakes had a protective effect on mental health.19
Stressed individuals also reported a “pronounced decrease in negative feelings” when they spent time in an urban wetland environment,20 which suggests many different types of blue spaces may be beneficial.
The Great Outdoors Is Good for You
Whether you live by the coast or inland, spending time in nature’s many different environments is protective to health.
A massive study involving data from 143 studies and more than 290 million people revealed that exposure to greenspace, defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation, led to significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number), salivary cortisol (a physiological marker of stress) and heart rate, along with significant decreases in Type 2 diabetes and mortality from all causes and those specifically related to the heart.21
Further, increased greenspace exposure led to reduced incidence of stroke, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, asthma and coronary heart disease. In those who are institutionalized, separate research has shown gardening, which necessitates spending time outdoors, promotes an “internal locus of control and well-being.”
A decrease in sadness and anxiety was noted among institutionalized older adults who gardened, while in general gardening by older adults is linked to:22
- Feelings of accomplishment
- Well-being and peace
- A decrease in depressive symptoms
- A protective effect on cognitive functions
- The development of social links
Nature Therapy and Park Prescriptions
With the increasing research showing green and blue spaces have much to offer for human health and well-being, it’s not surprising that nature-based therapies are emerging as tools to improve public health.
In one systematic review of both controlled and observational studies, nature-assisted therapy led to significant improvements in a variety of health conditions ranging from obesity to schizophrenia.23 Benefits have also been documented for cancer survivors, including:24
- Dragon boat racing, conducted on natural bodies of water, may enhance quality of life in breast cancer survivors
- Natural environment may counteract attentional fatigue in newly diagnosed breast cancer survivors
- Outdoor adventure programs foster a sense of belonging and self-esteem for children and adolescent cancer survivors
- Therapeutic landscapes may decrease anxiety, improving health
A ParkRx, or Park Prescriptions, movement, created via a collaboration between the Institute at the Golden Gate, the National Recreation and Parks Association and the National Park Service, also exists. It involves a health or social services provider giving a patient or client a “prescription” to spend more time in nature in order to improve their physical health and well-being.25
How Much Time Is Ideal to Get the Benefits Nature Offers?
At least one study suggested that spending 120 minutes or more in nature during the previous week was associated with a greater likelihood of good health or high well-being.26
However, there were decreasing returns with nature exposure beyond 120 minutes, and the association flattened out and even dropped between 200 and 300 minutes per week, suggesting 120 minutes may be a sort of Goldilocks zone for reaping all the benefit that nature has to offer, without overdoing it — if there is such a thing.
Not all exposure to green or blue spaces can be measured in minutes, though. It may be that living near nature, whether it be natural land or water, yields the most benefits of all, by giving you easy access to its soothing effects and, perhaps, encouraging more walks and other physical activity along its trails and shores.
Even if you can’t see the coast from your home, living near water affords you the luxury, or maybe the necessity, of visiting it often. No matter where you live, be sure to make spending time in nature a priority, and take advantage of its many health-boosting forms, from forests and mountains to rivers, wetlands and oceans.