Waves gently crashing along the shore. Sunlight streaming from a cloudless sky. Miles of seemingly-endless sand joining the horizon. Sounds pretty peaceful, doesn't it? And for many of us who spend most weekday hours indoors, it doesn't take much persuasion to peel off the layers and catch some sun.
But if you do need more reasons to hit the beach, find out how the surf, sun, and sand can boost your physical and mental health.
Health Benefits of the Beach
Look no further than the experts. In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, author J. Aaron Hipp, Ph.D., environmental health expert and assistant professor at the Brown School, pointed to the restorative environment of the beach.
"Studies have shown that natural environments like beaches and waterfront parks offer more restorative benefits to people than gyms, entertainment venues and the built urban environment," said Hipp.
His study goes further to suggest that we require specific conditions in that beachside environment to achieve the fully-desired restorative effect.
"Mild temperature days and low tides offer the most restorative environments when visiting the beach," he said.
"Beachgoers visiting on a day nearly 3 degrees (F) warmer than average were 30 percent less likely to perceive the beach or coastal park as restorative, compared with those visiting on average or cooler than average days."
We all know the risks of too much sun exposure. But there are benefits to getting some rays, too.
When our skin is directly exposed to the sun, our bodies make vitamin D, a vital tool that helps with calcium absorption and building strong bones. Some of it comes from diet, but a good portion also comes from the sun. And according to the Mayo Clinic, as little as 10 minutes of sun exposure can provide us with our daily dose. According to the vitamin D council, "your body can produce 10,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin D in just a little under the time it takes for your skin to turn pink."
In one study, sun exposure was shown to offer other benefits in addition to vitamin D production — including an increase in endorphins and possible prevention of autoimmune diseases.
But despite these benefits, limit your exposure to excessive sunlight to avoid skin cancer risks. When you do head out into the sun for more than a few minutes, remember to wear protective clothing and apply sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher.
Did you know that the soles of your feet have more sweat glands and nerve-endings per square centimeter than any other part of your body? And that walking barefoot stimulates them much more than walking in shoes?
Not only are you stimulating nerve endings when you walk on the sand, but you're also strengthening the muscles in your feet, which don't get used nearly as much when you're wearing shoes. And according to Martin Zucker, author of Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever?, you may be better connected to the earth when you ditch your shoes, reaping vital mood-boosting benefits. "Earthing," argues Zucker, reconnects our bodies to the ever-present energy of the earth, which modern lifestyles have increasingly diminished.
And in a study focused on running and walking on the sand, researchers found that walking on sand requires 1.6 to 2.5 times the energy than it takes on a hard surface.
"Our muscles perform more mechanical work when running or walking on sand than on a hard surface," said study co-author Dr. Thierry M. Lejeune, M.D.
If treading on the unwieldy sand for too long sounds tiring, try alternating your walk or run on the more compact sand closer to the water, where the surface will be less challenging.
Sea water contains high levels of various minerals — including magnesium, potassium and iodine — which may help fight infection, offer therapeutic effects, and potentially help the body heal and detoxify.
Aside from its therapeutics effects, swimming provides excellent physical exercise, employing most of our major muscle groups, especially as the water provides gentle resistance.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), swimming ranks as the fourth most popular sport activity in the United States. Among other aerobic activities (like running and bicycling), swimming for as little as two-and-a-half hours a week may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases and boost heart health.
And since it's a non-impact sport, swimming offers a great way for people with injuries to get some exercise. For sufferers of arthritis, water-based exercise can help improve joint pain symptoms.
Hipp JA, Ogunseitan O. Effect of environmental conditions on perceived psychological restorativeness of coastal parks. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2011.
Mead MN. Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008.
Lejeune TM, Willems PA, Heglund NC. Mechanics and energetics of human locomotion on sand. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 2011.
Moghaddam J, Hefzollesan M, Salehian MH, Shirmohammadzadeh M. Effect of Different Exercises on Reducing Male Students Depression. Annals of Biological Research. 2012.