Why Does the Ocean Make Me Feel Better?

ocean

I am on vacation in the Outer Banks (NC) with a dozen or so members of the Maher clan.  Sitting here watching the sun rise and listening to the break of the ocean waves is not a bad way to start the day.  I like being near the ocean for a number of reasons: I like the sun, I like the water, and I like the salt air.  I exercise more, I relax more, and I just feel better.  Is it all in my head, or does being or living by the ocean actually have health benefits?  Let’s find out.

Bathing Hospitals

According to a study last year by epidemiologist Lora Fleming of the University of Exeter (England), the benefits are real.  An article highlighting her research points out that doctors have been prescribing visits to the shore or “bathing hospitals” since the 18th century.

It seems they were on to something.  The study goes on to provide examples of people relaxing, feeling better, and being more active.  The study used an interesting combination of census data, surveys and social experiments to arrive at their conclusions.  Bottom-line, being by the ocean makes people feel better.

The Elements

Sun

The sun get’s a bad rap these days.  The amount of sunscreen slathered on people makes a day at the shore look like a zombie beach party.  I am not saying burn your kids and yourself to a crisp.  I am sayIng exposure to the sun does not translate to immediate skin cancer.  In fact, there are a number of well documented benefits of sun exposure:

  • Helps promote healthy bones and teeth
  • Helps prevent some diseases, including heart disease
  • Helps reduce cramping due to prolonged use of statins

Drinking on the beach all day and passing out in the sun for several hours is not recommended.  A little exposure is all that is needed to feel the benefits of the sun.

Water

Salt water also seems to have medicinal properties.  I found an article on Boomer Living + that highlights the benefits of the minerals contained in the ocean’s water.  Benefits include help with:

  • Arthritis
  • Psoriasis
  • Skin diseases (rosaeca, eczems, etc.)
  • Depression

It seems that the iodine found in ocean water boosts thyroid function and even improves the immune system.  An important benefit for those of us with cardiovascular disease is improved blood circulations. So go ahead, enjoy a little salt.

Air

The article also cites the benefits of the ocean air.  The theory goes, as waves break on shores, ions are released into the atmosphere.  Rumor has it, these are negatively charged ions.  This is important to those of us addicted to computer screens since they produce positive ions (also known as free radicals).  The claimed benefits of increased negative ions are:

  • Enhanced immune system
  • Increased alertness
  • Improved concentration

I am not sure how much of this “research” I actually buy into.  I just know that I feel better when I am near the ocean.  It could be time for a permanent stay at the bathing hospital.

 

Photo credit: PamLink / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Head and the Heart

Its All In Your Head

When I had a heart attack at 41, a number of thoughts went through my head, and none of them were very good.  An inventory of my mental state post heart attack:  shock, panic, guilt, anger, denial, fatalistic acceptance.  Interestingly, that was also my pattern of thought about most life matters pre-heart attack.  Must be the Irish in me!

Let’s take a look at each one of my my mental reactions in a little more detail before diving into the connection between the head and the heart.

Shock

Holy crap, what just happened?  I didn’t remember going into cardiac arrest or having a heart attack.  In fact, I didn’t wake up for a couple of days.  As the fog cleared and I was informed of my condition, I really could not believe what had just happened to me.  With my family history and reckless lifestyle, I anticipated clutching my chest at some point in life – just not at such a young age.

Panic

I’m going to die!  I was hooked up to a bunch of machines and had tubes coming out of every orifice of my body.  They even made new orifices to stick tubes into!  They told me I needed open heart surgery.  What about my family?  I have a three year old and my wife is pregnant with our second child.  How am I going to pull through and support my family?   I still needed to work for another 25 years!  A million thoughts like this went through my mind.

Guilt

What have I done?  Everyone around me offered tremendous love and support and I felt like I deserved none of it.  I put myself in this situation.  I knew my family history with heart disease.  Yet, I chose to smoke, drink like a fish, eat like crap, and sit on my ass.  Now I had put the future of my family in jeopardy.  Bad Paul.

Anger

Why me?  Early anger was mostly directed at myself.  Why did I make such stupid choices?  How could I be so reckless and irresponsible?  Not being a fan of self-directed anger, I moved on to directing my anger towards others.  Why are other people making healthy choices and living happy lives?  Yes, I was resentful of healthy and happy people (who isn’t?).

Denial/Fatalistic Acceptance

Carry on, nothing to see here.  Another trait I learned from my Irish parents. I am not sure why I am so obsessed with my Irish heritage right now.  Here is a great quote from a recent Lonely Planet guidebook that may explain it all:

The Irish – fatalistic and pessimistic to the core – will shrug their shoulders and just get on with their lives.

That’s me.  Strap on the blinders and go!

Fix the Head, Fix the Heart

There is a head-heart connection and for me it is the key to preventing my second heart attack.  I couldn’t fix my heart until I fixed my head!  So what was wrong with my head?  A pretty loaded question.  I found a New York Times article, “Why Smokers Still Smoke”, that offers an interesting theory.

the personality trait that distinguishes smokers from nonsmokers is their relative inability to delay satisfaction and respect long-term considerations (like their health). In other words: it’s their poor self-control.

Bingo! Not only did I lack poor self-control, I completely ignored any personal responsibility for my actions.  Here I was in my mid-forties, and I suddenly realized I was responsible for the rest of my life.  I was responsible for preventing my second heart attack!  Without this mental shift I truly believe I would be dead right now.

So how did I come to make this obvious but elusive mental shift?  By taking an honest inventory of my life.  Where had I been and where did I want to go?  This is not an easy exercise for someone like me who preferred to let life happen.  Once I discovered a morsel of self-control and realized I was responsible for my actions, I found doing the right thing became much easier.

Action Needs a Plan?

Say what?  Doing the right thing became easier when I finally started to set goals and make plans.  Remember the process of deciding where I wanted to go with my life?  In my compromised situation, it was pretty easy – I wanted to live.  Instead of putting on the blinders and seeing what life brought me, I needed to set a goal and make a plan.

My immediate goal was to get healthy.  But how do I make that happen, how do I translate a goal into a plan and then into action?  Keep it simple (stupid).  Here is what worked for me:

  1. Set a goal
  2. Make a plan
  3. Share the plan
  4. Execute

Exercise seemed like a good place to start if I wanted to get healthier.   I plotted out my exercise program on a calendar.  I shared my plan with my family and friends to make sure there was a built in method of accountability.  Then, I just did it.

Guess what, it worked!  Fixing my head may not fix my heart, but I have a feeling it will go a long way in preventing my second heart attack.

Check your head!

References:

Eyal Ert and Eldad Yechiam. “Why Smokers Still Smoke.” New York Times, July 26, 2013. Accessed June 7, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/opinion/sunday/why-smokers-still-smoke.html?_r=0.