How Boating is Good for Your Health and Mind
There is a unique feeling that big city dwellers know all too well. They take a once a year week-long fishing trip and, once the sea surrounds them, they experience this uncanny sensation of fog lifting from their brain. They seem to breathe easier, smile a little more, move a little slower. Then, as soon as they are back in the city, the heaviness of urban life comes back like a lead weight.
You might know this feeling too. It’s that sleepy forget-the-world calm that lulls you to sleep on the sand at the beach. It’s what allows time to fly when you’re out boating or on a kayak. It is no secret that nature is good for your physical and mental health, but the extent of its impact might surprise you.
Our bodies respond to our environments in powerful ways. Whether you realize it or not, spending too much time in and around man-made structures can have a negative impact on the body while spending time in nature and around water does just the opposite. Our own bodies tell us this, but a growing collection of scientific literature is also supporting this fact.
What Does the Science Say?
In one study examining more than 20,000 people, those who had spent a minimum of two hours per week engaging in natural activities reported significantly better health and more happiness than those who didn’t.
That 120-minute threshold is important, with any less time than that, the benefits weren’t seen. The benefits that were seen are incredible, though.
A little over 1000 studies have been done on the effects of nature on the body, and the results are undeniable. Being in nature can lower your blood pressure, lower stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, increase self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and even improve mood. These are just some of the effects, and the list is growing.
In his now-famous book, “Blue Mind”, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols expounds on the many health benefits of being around water in particular. As a marine biologist, he has experienced the benefits first hand, and now his research helps explain why. To help frame this research, Dr. Nichols coined the terms’ Red Mind’ and ‘Blue Mind’ to describe two very different mental states.
The ‘Red Mind’ includes varying degrees of that traffic noise laden, cell phone ringing, late for work, city life chaos sensation marked by stress, anxiety, and fear. The ‘Blue Mind’ is an antidote to the unhealthy ‘Red Mind’. That peaceful calm characterizes the ‘Blue Mind’ and general happiness people often feel out on the water. Dr. Nichols found that being near, in, or on the water triggers the healthier ‘Blue Mind’. The neurochemicals that connect stress signals in the brain are reset to lower levels around water, much like they are affected by meditation.
Other research supports this as well. Studies have found that charged ions in sea air can bind with destructive free radicals in the body. This helps with alertness and concentration. The salt from the water preserves your tryptamine, serotonin, and melatonin levels in the brain. These neurochemicals help reduce depression and increase your overall sense of wellness. On top of all that, the simple sound of ocean waves can change the brain’s wave patterns and make you more relaxed.
Triggering the ‘Blue Mind’
Boating is one of the best ways to trigger the ‘Blue Mind’ state. Boating effectively resets our brains, according to work by Dr. Nichols. Daily life can trigger us into a state of constant alertness and anxiety, but being on the water undoes that and takes us back to a calm default. This is partially explained by the fact that your brain has less to pay attention to when out on the water. Similar to how sleep helps your brain reset, spending time out on the open water without distraction helps your brain calm down.
Boating is also meditative and awe-inspiring. Wherever you go on the water, you are likely to see beautiful sights of nature that leave you in awe. It might be an amazing school of fish, a spectacular sunset, or just the deep blue of the water. These experiences uniquely work to pull us outside of ourselves. It can be easy to get lost in our own thoughts throughout a regular workweek, but something that inspires awe in us can remind us of the outside world.
That awe-inspired reminder is psychologically powerful. According to Dr. Nichols, our sense of purpose, compassion, and self-worth improve the more we can get out of our heads. The sensory stimulation of boating is especially helpful. Feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin are more likely to increase around water while the stress hormones like cortisol decrease. Simply having fun on the water and enjoying that sense of play is great for the mind and body on multiple levels.
Research has found that the slurry of good hormones and reduced stress, and increased play makes people more creative. Being in, on, or near the water makes a person happier and more productive overall. What’s especially remarkable is that some of these benefits are possible by thinking about water or looking at water. Our brains are conditioned to respond to water in certain beneficial ways.
In studies described by Psychology Today, cancer patients suffering from chronic pain were exposed to videos and sounds of ocean waves, waterfalls, and creeks. These patients experienced a measurable 20-30% decrease in the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. Another study is described in which teens at the dentist’s office were exposed to water fountain sounds, reducing their anxiety levels. Study after study reinforces the understanding that water is powerful for physical and mental health.
Hacks for a ‘Blue Mind’
Some of the ways that boating benefits your physical and mental health can be replicated from home. Nothing works as a perfect substitute for the great outdoors, but these hacks can hold you over between times on the water. As the current expert on the positive impact of water on the body and mind, Dr. Nichols figured out a few tricks you can do at home.
The most immersive hack involves filling a tub with water, adding bath salts, lighting a candle, and playing ocean sounds in the background. You should submerge yourself in the water until only your nose sticks out the top. Another hack requires you to pay more attention to little bodies of water you encounter every day, such as ponds, lakes, fountains, and even puddles. Finally, if you are stuck inside, surrounding yourself with images, sounds, and written descriptions of water can do the trick.
Additional Benefits of Being on the Water
Boating is so beneficial for your health and mind that it would be easy to write a whole book on the subject. Boating brings you out in nature in unique ways that can really benefit you. Compared to walking in a city park, boating can pull you away from more polluted urban air and expose you to cleaner environments. That fresh air can do wonders for your lungs and for the oxygenation of your brain. We rarely think about it, but most cities are full of pollutants just lingering in the air. Car exhaust, paint fumes, smoke, burning tires or trash, you name it.
Being out on the water also allows you to disconnect from technology for a while. Similar to the nasty pollutants floating in city air, urban centers are also packed with telecommunications signals that can be detrimental to your health as well. Getting away from that and away from your own cell phone signal can do you wonders. Sometimes just being detached from the world for a little while is what you need.
Sunshine is another great benefit of boating. At its extreme, it can do more harm than good. But, if you use sunscreen and protect yourself, the sun will help you metabolize Vitamin D better, and this helps maintain strong bones, among other things. The sun is also a great mood booster and is positively associated with good hormones. For anyone stuck working inside day after day, spending long uninterrupted hours in the sun can be cathartic. Like most of the benefits of boating, exposure to sunlight has physical and mental benefits.
One of the more unexpected health benefits of boating comes from the quality time you end up spending with friends and family. Out on the water, you build memories and shared experiences with people you love. These types of social ties have been proven to be very important for overall health. Stronger social connections usually lead to less stress and longer life, so anything that reinforces that is especially important.
Boating is the Best Medicine
Science and personal experience have proven that being out on the water is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. The very sight, sound, or smell of the sea has powerful effects on the brain, and the chemical changes brought about in the body by sea salt, and sea minerals are profound. Water is a strong treatment to reduce stress hormones and boost positive neurochemicals in your brain. As Dr. Nichols describes it, being in, near, or on the water activates your healthy ‘Blue Mind’, and the more you can do that, the better you will feel.