Doctor explains why we all need to join the ‘blue gym’ this summer

We all need to join the ‘blue gym’ this summer! After a lifetime researching the health benefits of the sea, top scientist Dr DEBORAH CRACKNELL explains why we all need to join

  • Dr Deborah Crackwell dedicated six years to researching benefits of blue health
  • Research shows people lucky enough to live on the coast tend to be more active
  • Psychology and Health journal also found floating in salt water helped stress 

There’s always been something beguiling about the sound of crashing waves, the softness of warm sand between your toes and the smell of salty air that pulls many of us repeatedly back to the sea.

But it’s not just the fond memories of childhood beach holidays or the allure of palm-fringed desert islands that keep us in thrall — studies now increasingly reveal striking psychological and physical benefits to be had from spending time at the coast.

After 20 years as a marine biologist I’ve dedicated the past six years to researching the tangible benefits of ‘blue health’, the extraordinary effect of the sea and oceans on our wellbeing. So many theories and studies have focused on green space such as fields and forests, but my fascination lies in highlighting the benefits of blue space, and specifically the sea.

Research shows that people who live closer to the sea tend to be happier and healthier than people who live inland, but you don’t have to travel far to harness those life-enhancing benefits — some can be gleaned from the comfort of your own home.

Dr Deborah Crackwell has dedicated six years to researching the benefits of blue health – the extraordinary effect of the sea and oceans on our wellbeing (file picture)


Research shows people lucky enough to live on the coast tend to be more active than the rest of us. But it’s clear to me from my research that there’s something special about ‘blue exercise’; that more of us should be turning the coast into your own, entirely free, ‘blue gym’.

Whether you’re in the water (swimming), on the water (surfing, kayaking or paddle-boarding), under the water (diving), or even by the water (walking along the beach), blue exercise does you a lot of good.

Water has the dual benefit of providing buoyancy yet creating resistance, so it offers the opportunity to take effective and beneficial aerobic exercise which puts relatively little strain on the joints.

Because water effectively reduces your weight by 90 per cent you can exercise without impact.

And, as water lessens the effects of gravity, you should be able to move your body through a wider range of exercises, improving flexibility.

Dr Cracknell said people who live on the coast tend to be more active (file picture)

Try aqua jogging in shoulder-depth water: simply run on the spot, bringing your knees up high, pumping your arms.

You might have heard of the ‘blue zones’; five distinct areas in the world where communities enjoy robust health to the age of 100 and beyond.

Specialists have studied the diets and lifestyles of people from Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (U.S.) and found they share many key lifestyle characteristics such as high activity levels, a strong sense of family and a busy social life. I am convinced it is no mere coincidence that all of these communities around the world are located close to the sea.

The benefits are clear: walking along the coast or swimming in the sea keeps people physically active; visiting the beach with family and friends fosters valuable social interaction; spending time in natural environments promotes positive relationships with nature; watching and listening to the ocean relaxes and calms a busy mind.

A massive ongoing survey that conducts 45,000 interviews a year, looking at how people in England engage with nature, has found visits to the coast score highest for their ‘restorative’ impact.


She also explained how running on the beach is harder work and that the sand can absorb some of the weight when landing (file picture)

Walking or jogging on a beach is tougher than pavement or grass because your body has to adapt as the sand gives way beneath your feet.

Start close to the water where the sand is more stable, then move up the beach on to softer sand for more of a challenge. On sand you get a demanding workout which burns more calories and builds more muscle.

The sand also absorbs some of your weight when you land, which reduces the stress on your knees, hips and ankles, and forces you to engage the stabilising muscles of your abdomen as your body has to compensate for the uneven surface.


When you’re in the sea, whether you’re just paddling or properly swimming, surfing or body boarding, you will be gleaning all the physical benefits of exercise as well as the benefits of immersion in magnesium-rich salt water.

Studies published in the journal Psychology and Health have shown that floating in salt water lowers levels of stress hormones, reduces blood pressure, improves sleep, helps muscles recover from exercise and aids creativity.

Other studies, including one published in the International Journal on Nutrition, Diet and Nervous System in 2013, have found that these effects are possibly the result of the magnesium in the water — so floating on your back in the sea could be doing you more good than you realise.

Studies published in the journal Psychology and Health have shown that floating in salt water lowers levels of stress hormones (file picture)

That’s great news for women in midlife because magnesium plays a vital role in muscle health and supports the production of brain chemicals that control mood, alongside healthy blood pressure, glucose control, energy metabolism and bone health as well as maintaining a healthy nervous system.

It has been shown to support both heart and bone health and help ease menopausal insomnia and elevate low mood.

So if you can’t get to the coast for a regular swim in the sea, try mimicking the effects with a magnesium bath or body spray.

Detox bath salts: Sprinkle this into a bath at bedtime to soothe skin and boost magnesium levels.

  • 70ml (2 fl oz) apple cider vinegar
  • 10 drops essential oil, such as lavender, thyme or rosewood
  • 60g (2 oz) sea salt
  • 60g (2 oz) Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate)

Run a warm bath, add all the ingredients and swirl around until dissolved. Soak for 20 minutes.

A daily body spray: This mixture of magnesium and water has a slightly greasy feeling on the skin and is an efficient way to top up magnesium levels.

Dissolve 125g (4 oz) magnesium chloride flakes (BetterYou, £3.99 for 250 g, in 120ml (4 fl oz) boiled water then leave to cool. Store in a spray bottle and apply daily to arms, legs and stomach.


A powerful benefit of being by the sea is our exposure to direct sunlight, the main source of ultraviolet radiation, which naturally produces vitamin D — the sunshine vitamin — in our skin.

Although it’s usually associated with bone health — one of its most critical functions is to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, vital for healthy bones, teeth and muscles — vitamin D is also known for its importance to our immune system, digestive health and mental wellbeing, not to mention its anti-cancer properties.

Research has already established a link between insufficient vitamin D levels and increased risk of certain cancers, such as prostate, breast and ovarian, but vitamin D deficiency is also linked to debilitating digestive disorders including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Studies have found that ultraviolet radiation tends to be greater at the coast because of the effects that the landscape has on the clouds — put simply, more sunshine gets through.

In Britain, this is especially important in the autumn and winter months when vitamin D synthesis is at its lowest.


Studies have also found that people sleep more deeply after a day at the beach (file picture)

Studies have confirmed what many people suspect — that you tend to sleep more deeply after a day at the beach. A 2015 study for the National Trust found that a coastal walk could give you an extra 47 minutes of rest each night compared to inland rambling.

One suggestion is that walking by the coast brings back memories of childhood holidays by the sea, and these enhanced feelings of being away from daily routines create a more intensely restorative experience which results in better and longer sleep.

It could also be something to do with seeing the sea, getting exercise, and breathing fresh air.

In natural locations such as beaches and waterfalls, the air is full of negative ions which are generated when air molecules are broken apart by sunlight or the movement of air and water.

Many people believe negative ions can improve mood, relieve stress and aid sleep, and studies, including a comprehensive review and meta-analysis published by health scientists from Chicago in 2013, have shown negative ionisation can help ease depression.

The mere sound of water can generate feelings of relaxation, too. Research shows that the sound of ocean waves alters the wave patterns in our brains, lulling us into a more relaxed state.

For instance, a study at the University of Granada in Spain found people associated the sound of water with positive feelings.

Wave sounds are the perfect accompaniment for calming activities such as reading, meditation or yoga and can help soothe periods of stress and anxiety (try downloading apps such as Calm and Sea Sounds). It can also improve concentration and boost creativity.


Try this simple breathing exercise which, when done correctly, will sound like the ocean. Research shows conscious breathing like this can help improve sleep and reduce stress and cravings:

1. Stand or sit in a comfortable position and take a few deep breaths through your nose and relax your whole body.

2. Bring one hand up in front of your face with your palm facing you, and exhale on to your palm through your mouth as if you were trying to fog up a mirror.

3. Inhale then, keeping your hand in front of your face, exhale in the same way again but this time with your mouth closed so the air comes out through your nose. You will feel a slight constricting sensation in the back of your throat and hear a sound like an ocean wave.

4. Bring your hand down to your side and close your eyes but continue breathing, in through the nose normally, and out through the nose maintaining the rushing sound, for five minutes.


For many people, regular meditation isn’t an appealing prospect — it’s just another thing to squeeze into your busy life. But studies consistently show how meditation can help reduce stress, build self-confidence and self-esteem, and maintain good health.

Yet when you meditate, your body undergoes physiological changes that result in lower blood pressure, an improved immune system, a decrease in tension-related pain (such as headaches or muscle pain), increased energy and greater production of serotonin (the happy hormone).

If the physical reasons aren’t enough, there are some amazing psychological benefits to meditating as well, including decreased anxiety and tension, increased creativity and happiness, and a sharpening of the mind.

The beach is the best possible place to start. Try this exercise which uses the sound of the waves as a focus.

1. Sit comfortably near the water’s edge in an upright position. Close your eyes and relax your body.

2. Once you are settled, turn your awareness to your breath. Breathe deeply in and out for a minute or two, noticing the sound and frequency of your breath.

3. Now gently bring your attention to the sound of the waves. Notice each wave as it breaks on the shore, then retreats — in and out, in and out.

4. When your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to the sound of the waves. Continue for ten minutes.

ADAPTED by Louise Atkinson from By The Sea by Dr Deborah Cracknell (£14.99, Aster). To order a copy for £11.99 (20 per cent discount) visit or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery. Offer valid until May 20, 2019.

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