There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the smell of salt water, and the feeling of warm sand beneath your toes. Having grown up near the beach, I always classified my happiness on the beach as no more than nostalgia. Yet, recent studies prove that a beach-type environment can have a profound impact on our brains and mental health.
Although few people deny the importance of brain health, most of us don't focus as much effort on taking care of our brains as we do our bodies. The misnomer that physical fitness trumps mental health is at our detriment. The reality is that we need balance, both mentally and physically.
Numerous studies help us appreciate why the beach may be the premier destination for us to unwind and recharge our minds.
Listen to Crashing Waves
Several months ago I partook in a deprivation float (the practice that many superstars such as, Steph Curry swear by). As my mind reached a meditative state, I could not help but hear a sound similar to that of waves crashing gently on the beach. This repetitive sound that was created as a result of my rhythmic breaths and my ears being submerged in salt water instantly put me at ease.
"These slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people," says Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University. "It's like they're saying: "Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry." The sound of waves can help you achieve a meditative state, which is proven to heal and strengthen your brain.
Remove the Blues
Studies have shown that different colors often produce different psychological, emotional, and physical effects. The color blue, for instance, is often used in marketing material to convey a sense of calmness. The Global Healing Center advises individuals to actually surround themselves in blue as a way to reduce stress.
According to Richard Shuster, PsyD, clinical psychologist, he agrees that blue has a profound calming effect on people. "Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves' frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state," says Shuster.
Smell the Ocean Mist
When you first step out on the sand and allow your lungs to be filled with salty misty air, your brain may be receiving instant benefits. The negative ions (oxygen ions with an extra electron attached, produced via water molecules) in the ocean air can actually help calm your brain.
Negative ions have been shown to have a pronounced anti-depressant effect as well. As early as 1932, American research engineer Dr. Clarence Hansell noticed that the mood of one of his colleagues fluctuated in response to the type of ions - cheerful when subjected to positive ions and gloomy when subjected to negative ones.
Subsequent studies have found that the act of negatively ionized air -- the kind you receive when you get outside for a gulp of fresh air -- can alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Feel the Sand Between Your Toes
Grounding, otherwise known as walking barefoot, has been proven to have a number of stimulating benefits to our bodies and minds. The reason is that our feet contain a rich network of nerves and acupuncture points. Our feet are able to absorb free ions on the earth surface in much the same way that our lungs are able to absorb ions in the air.
A report in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine shed some more light on these benefits. The earth is negatively charged, so when you walk barefoot, you're connecting your body to a negatively charged supply of energy. The result is one that many of us feel as soon as we kick off our shoes. Walking barefoot on the beach can trigger tingling warm sensations produced as a result of us "grounding" to earth.
"There are all these cognitive and emotional benefits that we derive every time we spend time by water" said Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and best-selling author of the Blue Mind. "Once you get into it, you realize that it's chemistry, it's biology, it's physiology. It's deeply personal but it's also strong science."
In 2012, a University of Exeter study found that simply living within close proximity to a beach improves one's health and wellbeing. While it may be unreasonable for some of us to uproot and move to a beach town, prioritizing getting outdoors and connecting with the earth will still help you stay mentally fit.