July 2018

For a Healthier, Happier Life, Add Water: A deep dive into the benefits of being on, in or around the water

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

From the time I was a small child, I took to water like a tadpole on its way to frogdom. I spent my summers wading through rocky creeks in the woods behind our house, running in and out of the lawn sprinkler, and practicing my cannonball skills at the East Point public swimming pool. I could always sniff out a neighbor’s inflatable backyard pool or find a mud puddle. If all else failed, I splashed around in our tiny bathtub like it was Lake Superior—with bubbles.

By the time I was a teenager, my grandmother had traded her Sunday dresses and tailored slacks for tacky T-shirts, a do-rag, and a fishing pole, moving to Panama City Beach, Florida, where I got my first taste of fresh-from-the-ocean seafood and discovered my true affinity for beach life. Then I was off to Georgia Southern University and pretty much landlocked save for an occasional weekend jaunt to Tybee.

I moved to Hilton Head Island in 1981 and quickly found the answer to what had been missing in my life between high school and college graduation. I need to see water, be in it, near it or surrounded by it. When I’m away for even a brief period of time, I mourn the sea. Although streams and waterfalls are lovely, a mountain girl I could never be. I need the vastness of the ocean, the scent of salt air, the sound of waves lapping the shore, serene walks on the beach with seafoam tickling my toes, sunrises peeking over the edge of the watery horizon, dolphins at play in the surf, and moonbeams dancing their way to the shoreline. My happiness depends on it.

But why?

Because I’m so strongly attracted to water, I did some research to explore the rhyme and reason. I found some serious scholars as well as scientists, renowned authors and everyday reporters pontificating on this very topic of the human affinity for water and its mysterious benefits.

In a Huffington Post report “Why Being Near the Ocean Can Make you Calmer and More Creative,” Carolyn Grant shares some historical significance: “Since ancient times, humans have assigned healing and transformational properties to water. In early Rome, baths were an important part of cultural life, a place where people went to find relaxation and to connect with others. In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicinal wisdom, and traditional Chinese medicine, the water element is crucial to balancing the body and creating physical harmony. Rivers have long been seen as sacred places, and in a number of different spiritual contexts, water has symbolized rebirth, spiritual cleansing, and salvation,” she wrote.

In the mid-nineteenth century, “taking the waters,” or hydropathy, became a popular natural therapy for all sorts of ailments. Hydropathy encompassed everything from a spell in the tub to highly regimented procedures supervised by water doctors with stopwatches. According to its promoters, who were some of the most distinguished medical men of the day, water could cure everything from hiccups to cancer (and even hydrophobia).It was first introduced in Europe by Austrian Vincenz Priessnitz after he claimed to have mended his broken ribs in the spring waters of Grafenberg, Silesia. Joel Shew, a physician from New York, introduced hydropathy to America in 1844.

A little closer to home, Warm Springs, Georgia (originally named Bullochville after the Bulloch family, the family of Martha Bulloch Roosevelt), came to prominence as a spa town because of its mineral springs which flow constantly at nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Residents of Georgia began vacationing at Bullochville in the late eighteenth century as a way to escape yellow fever.

In 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted a paralytic illness, diagnosed as polio. He tried to regain strength in his legs by bathing and exercising in warm water, visiting Warm Springs for the first time in 1924. Although never again able to use his legs fully, by 1928, he regained enough strength to return to politics—elected governor of New York and later serving as the thirty-second president of the United States. Roosevelt returned frequently to use the therapeutic springs until his death there in 1945. His home there, known as the Little White House, is now a state-operated museum. The springs are not open for public use as a bath/spa resort, but they are used for therapeutic purposes by the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.

Yes, in modern times, we continue to turn to water for its healing properties as well as a sense of calm and clarity. We spend our vacations on the beach or at the lake; get exercise and enjoyment from water sports; refresh ourselves with long showers; relax in hot tubs and soothing baths; and often build our lives and homes in close proximity to water.

Even the mere sight of water has proven beneficial. A 2016 study, co-authored by Michigan State University’s Amber L. Pearson, found a link between health and the visibility of water, which the researchers call blue space. Views of blue space are associated with lower levels of psychological distress, according to the study, whereas the same results are not achieved in association with green space.

In another study, German researchers concluded that even being near man-made water features, such as city-center fountains, park ponds, and canals is beneficial. A Pan-European, multi-disciplinary research consortium focused on understanding how water-based environments in towns and cities can affect health and wellbeing, is currently attempting to quantify the positive effects of “blue infrastructure [natural and man-made aquatic environments] on health promotion and disease prevention” using a series of surveys, reviews, and experiments to continue through 2019.

Marine biologist and author Wallace J. Nichols believes that we all have what he calls a blue mind—a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment—that is triggered when we’re in or near water.

Need a notepad in your shower? Ever wonder why you have eureka moments while lathering up? A shower can be a great way to trigger ideas and pull out of a creative rut. Stepping into the shower removes a lot of the visual and auditory stimulation of your day and allows the mind to wander freely—like a mini-vacation. “With the brain in a more relaxed state, suddenly you’re able to make new or unusual connections,” Nichols explained.

“We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken,” Nichols wrote in Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.

“Water is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and it means something different to everyone,” archeologist Brian Fagan wrote in his book, Elixir: a History of Water and Humankind. “We know instinctively that being near water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, and brings us peace.”

Now head on out to the beach, pool or marina. Toss a penny in a fountain, take a refreshing shower or relax in a warm bath. Go for a waterside walk or run, book a boat tour, or simply gaze out over the nearest body of water and let your mind meander. Wherever you are and whatever you do, add water, and have yourself a fantastic day!

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