The Science is Clear: Boating is Good for Your Health & Mind
Back at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the former director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Tom Frieden, had a simple message for Americans: “Enjoy nature. It’s good for us, and it has very low risk of spreading the virus.”
A huge number of Americans heeded that advice and took to the water aboard boats (see 6 Reasons Boat Sales are Booming Ahead of Summer 2020). According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, U.S. boat sales reached a 13-year high in 2020 as Americans looked for ways to enjoy the outdoors safely with family and friends. The association directly attributed many of these sales to the need for outdoor recreation and social distancing.
Personal watercraft (PWC), wake boats, freshwater fishing and pontoon boats all saw big jumps in sales as Americans took to the water. And a lot of the buyers were first-time boat owners, which were up 10 percent compared with 2019.
All those new boaters tend to lead to even more boat owners, association president Frank Hugelmeyer told CNBC.
“You never have a lack of friends who want to go out on a boat,” Hugelmeyer said. “You become very popular and then, family and friend groups begin to expand to become boating families.”
Many people who try boating for the first time can simply feel, instinctively, what research continually shows: being around the water can be healing in and of itself. Feeling the sunshine and fresh air all around, and looking out over the blue water toward the horizon, leads most people to relax, to exhale, to feel rejuvenated even in times of great stress.
In fact, after the pandemic shutdowns first happened in early 2020, some of the first public spaces and businesses to reopen were boat ramps and marinas—after officials determined that getting out on a boat could be done safely and would help people to get through the worst of the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“Boating or paddling can provide a refreshing outdoor escape during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Peter Francis, boating division director for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said at the time.
And that escape doesn’t have to be for long in order to provide a healing benefit. According to research released in 2020 by the journal Frontiers in Psychology, as little as 10 minutes of being in a nature can have a positive effect. Compared to people in urban settings near things like traffic, people in natural settings saw a decrease in heart rate, cortisol levels, blood pressure and more.
Researchers found the very things that boaters tend to say they feel: “reducing stress, anger, anxiety, and … increasing vigor, comfort, positive affect, and a sense of feeling refreshed.”
Water is Healing
In October 2019, researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom published a study showing that people who live near the ocean are 22 percent less likely to report depression and anxiety symptoms than people who stay inland. The beneficial effects of “blue health”—interacting with bodies of water—were especially high among lower-income households.
The British study followed a Canadian study in 2018 showing that people living closer to the water lowered their risk of mortality by as much as 17 percent. The “protective effects” of being near bodies of water were especially noteworthy among women and older adults.
In fact, just the sounds of bodies of water can help to reduce stress, according to a 2013 study. Get yourself within earshot of a lake, river or ocean, and you can immediately feel better.
Igniting Your "Blue Mind"
Wallace J. Nichols, the author of Blue Mind, knows all of this information well. His bestselling book looks at the scientific reasons why being in, on or under the water can make us happier and healthier.
"Simply the mere sight and sound of water promotes wellness by lowering cortisol, increasing serotonin, and inducing relaxation," said Nichols.
In fact, he says, when it comes to reducing stress, being on a boat can be considered a type of medicine.
"Blue mind is when we disconnect and logout," Nichols continues. "We move away from the screens and we get out on the water, and leave all of that technology and information behind. We give our brains a break—and our brains love that."
The Power of Sunlight and Vitamin-D
In late-April 2020, during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security also released a study related to the life cycle of the virus on non-living surfaces. The study detailed the anticipated times the virus can survive on surfaces given variations in temperature, humidity, and exposure to sunlight.
In the end, the results concluded that the virus would die in approximately two minutes at a temperature above 70 degrees Fahrenheit with relative humidity at 80% and direct exposure to sunlight—which is good news for boaters. Particularly those interested in alternatives to boat ownership like boat rentals, peer-to-peer boat sharing, and boat clubs, this type of science shows that any concerns about exposure from prior renters in addition to new cleaning guidelines boat clubs and rentals are following should be minimal (and if you want to rent a boat or join a club this summer, check out our guide on Boat Rentals & Boat Clubs: What to Know During COVID-19).
So, the science is clear: Boating is good for your health and mind. Get out there, as soon and as often as you can. The water, and reduced stress, are awaiting you.
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2020 and updated in April 2021.