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Can Living Near Water Help Recovery?

A view of blue space is associated with higher levels of overall mental health and well-being

woman looking out over a lake

Over the past 30 years, scientific research has established a clear connection between lifestyle and physical, mental, and emotional health. Stated simply, when we follow common-sense lifestyle advice – which, coincidentally, sounds a lot like things our parents or grandparents have been telling us since we were little – everything about our lives improves.

When we eat well, get regular exercise, and sleep enough, we’re more likely to avoid chronic physical and emotional disorders than if we don’t. That means a diet that has plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, 30-60 minutes of exercise a day, and 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

Those are basic instructions, all told. They apply to almost everyone, but there’s a group of people for whom they’re particularly relevant: those in recovery from alcohol or substance abuse. Establishing healthy habits that sustain the body, enrich the mind, and feed the soul is an essential part of the recovery process.

Getting back to basics is a great way to start, and common-sense rules help get us on track.

Recent research tells us there may be another factor that has a significant effect on overall well-being, and therefore, may also help people in recovery create a healthy, happy life without using alcohol or drugs: proximity to water.

Preferably large, natural bodies of water.

Studies from the U.K., the U.S., and New Zealand

The good thing about this is that it’s not a daily behavior you have to repeat until it becomes a habit.

You get the benefit by where you live. And if you live in the right place – i.e. near water – it’s a benefit that keeps on giving.

The first study I’ll talk about is one from a researcher at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. We’ll discuss this one first because it included information from 48 million people – a huge data set for a study on mental health. What they found was this: people who live within one kilometer (that’s just over half a mile) from the sea were more likely to report that they were happier and in good health than those who lived over a kilometer away from the coast.  

The next study – a joint effort by researchers from the University of Michigan in the U.S. and the University of Otago in New Zealand – analyzed information from the New Zealand Health Survey, which includes questions designed to gauge the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders on a population level. This study looked at two things: whether a view of the ocean was associated with improved mental health, or whether a view of greenspace was associated with improved mental health, as compared to a view of neither the ocean nor greenspace.

What did they find?

A view of the ocean – which they call blue space – was associated with higher levels of overall mental health and well-being than a view of greenspace or a view of an urban area.

Blue Zones, Blue Space, and Longevity

You may have heard of Blue Zones or the concept of Blue Mind. Blue Zones are areas of the planet where geographic and lifestyle factors seem to combine to increase health, happiness, and longevity. Blue Mind refers to the state of mind common to people who live in Blue Zones – happy, healthy, and relatively stress-free. Blue Zones were first identified – and the term coined and popularized – by a National Geographic expedition led buy author Dan Buettner. The goal of the expedition was to travel to areas of the planet where people regularly lived over 100 years and find out why they live longer than people in other areas.

They found five places that met their criteria. Those five places have the following fundamental things in common:

  1. Natural Movement. People in blue zones don’t exercise or work out more than other people, but regular physical activity, such as walking, gardening, and swimming are part of their daily routines.
  2. Purpose. People who live in blue zones have a reason to get up in the morning. They have activities, people, or causes they live for. According to the Blue Zone Project, having a clear purpose can add seven years to your life.
  3. Stress Management. People who live in blue zones experience stress just like everyone does. The difference is that people who live in blue zones have stress-relief routines built in to their daily lives – and those routines are part of what keeps them healthy and happy.
  4. Moderate Eating. People in blue zones report they don’t eat big meals, and stop eating when they’re about 80% full.
  5. Vegetables, Fruit, and Beans. People in blue zones eat less meat than most other people on the planet. Their source of protein is predominantly beans, such as fava, black, soy, and lentils. When they do eat meat, the portions are small – 3-4 ounces on average.
  6. Belonging. Most residents of blue zones are members of some sort of spiritual or faith-based community, and report participating in faith-based services or activities about four times per month.
  7. Families and Loved Ones. Residents of blue zones tend to live with family or loved ones. Most live with a life partner, and have their extended family nearby, including parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren.
  8. Supportive, Like-minded Friends. People in blue zones live in communities that are supportive of a healthy lifestyle and healthy life choices.

There’s one last thing the authors of the study fail to mention, but I will, since it’s related to the question we post in the title of the article:

All five Blue Zones identified – Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece – are either islands surrounded by water or located within a kilometer of the ocean.

What This Means to You

You don’t have to live in a blue zone to be happy, and you don’t have to live in a blue zone or have a blue mind to live a long and healthy life.

The takeaway from the blue zone and blue mind concept is that you can integrate lifestyle elements from the people who live the longest into your life, no matter where you are. Granted, if you live in St. Louis, you’re a long way from the ocean – but the mighty Mississippi is close by. And if you live in the country in the Midwest, you can find a lake or creek to get your version of the blue mind effect: the point is that you can create a blue zone of blue mind yourself – and it’s not all about location.

Living by the ocean helps – the data I discuss above proves this.

Those of us who don’t live by the ocean, though, can certainly apply the blue zone and blue mind concept, because it’s not complicated: keep your body moving, have a reason to get up in the morning, manage your stress, eat well and not too much, keep your loved ones close, practice some form of spirituality, and surround yourself with people committed to a healthy lifestyle.

It might take time to restructure your daily routines and begin living a blue zone/blue mind-informed lifestyle, but for the sake of your health and longevity – and your recovery – it may be well worth it. In fact, it might be exactly what you need.

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