Do you sit at a desk at work, and then rush home to make dinner and tidy the house before crashing from exhaustion? Day after day, the stress builds up inside. Of course, you could try a 1-minute breathing exercise to unwind. But what you really want is a pill you can pop to make you feel super human. Then you wouldn’t be so burned out to begin with. While there may not be a magic elixir, there is one thing that can quickly melt away stress and rest your overworked mind: water wellness.
Science backs up the positive influence water has on our mental and physical health and well-being. “Water is medicine,” says Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, marine biologist, conservationist and author of “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 has been a big part of what has made our lives worth living. The water is a place to go to feel calm, joy, relaxation, freedom, creativity, happiness, and peace. Water can be a path to emotional and physical healing. Water makes our brains work better,” Dr. Nichols says.
Water wellness: workouts and meditation
Lake Austin Spa Resort, located in Austin, Texas, has taken Dr. Nichols’ research to heart in its experiential programming. Among its water wellness activities, here are three that can help improve your overall well-being:
- Meditative sun-up and sundown SUP paddle boarding
- Floating water meditation and relaxation
- Gentle water workouts
These water workouts — some of which can easily be recreated — are part of Lake Austin Spa Resort’s Ripple Effects: The Wellness of Water, a series of experiences that align with Dr. Nichols’ science of water wellness. Cindy Present, Lake Austin Spa Resort director of fitness, says the research supports the cognitive and physical effects of water.
“Something really special happens when you take people to the water. I’ve always been surrounded by the benefits of water but have always questioned what the science is behind it.
Now I know how and why it works,” Present says.
Water wellness: the cognitive benefits
In his book, Dr. Nichols takes an ecumenical approach to Earth’s waterways, stressing throughout the text that you don’t even have to be in the water to benefit from its therapeutic properties. “Blue Mind” dives into what neuroscientists refer to as “default mode,” a state of daydreaming and mind-wandering that water exposure helps to facilitate in our brains. Dr. Nichols explains that the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that is more focused on problem-solving — gets a break when we’re around, on or in water.
“That’s when insight and innovation happen,” he says, adding that “something in your neurochemistry changes when you get near the water. The environment stimulates your brain to create feel-good chemicals. You don’t need to buy those chemicals; you can make them.”
The chemicals he refers to are dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which all flood our brains when we’re near oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, streams, pools and any other body of water. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop.
Present is no stranger to the beneficial effects of water. She grew up on Lake Austin and makes a 15-minute commute to work every day atop her paddle board.
“Boarding to work gives me time to center myself and frame the day,” she says.
Connecting with water
Among her duties at Lake Austin Spa Resort Present regularly leads Meditative Sun Up and Sundown SUP Paddle Board outings. While doing a simple yoga flow on the board, surrounded by Lake Austin’s still waters and the rolling green hills of a nearby nature preserve, she focuses on mindful movement and balance, allowing her students to observe nature and enjoy all that the water offers.
Present says she loves bringing people to the water and helping them discover the physical and emotional rewards it imparts.
“People tell me ‘I need to get to my water.’ They realize their minds are in a much more relaxed state when they’re on the water. There isn’t as much to distract them,” Present says.
Indeed, in “Blue Mind” Dr. Nichols describes the “decidedly meditative state that arises with the rhythmic strokes of paddle dipping into water.” He further explains that “novel, enjoyable yet mildly stressful experiences” that occur on water have an effect on the brain’s social instincts, “priming participants to crave social contact, enhancing empathy, and increasing willingness to be helpful and supportive.”
“When you’re conscious of the dramatic impact water can have, it can change your life,” Present says.
You don’t have to live on the lake or have access to paddle boarding to reap water wellness benefits. Present suggests installing a water feature in your home or garden or starting your daily run near a stream or a park fountain.
Tuning into yourself
If you find yourself regularly dulling your senses with social media, TV, food, alcohol or another distraction, there is a way to tune into yourself and your environment. All you need is a floating mat, a still body of water and some calming music.
Caren Jeskey, a meditation instructor at Lake Austin Spa Resort, teaches Driftaway: Floating Water Meditation and Relaxation, which entails floating on a mat and listening to calming music while drifting through a meditation session.
She begins the class by asking students to acknowledge the thoughts, sensations and sounds that arise and then to let them go. She explains that the first step in meditation is being fully aware of what is happening around you and accepting it rather than trying to change it.
Next, she leads her class through an unfolding exercise in which each part of the body is relaxed, starting with the feet and working up to the head. Jeskey spends the last portion of class serenading floating meditators with her wooden Native American flute.
She says that some people report experiencing heightened senses during their Driftaway meditation.
According to “Blue Mind,” when we’re in the water, “our bodily senses — especially touch, pressure, temperature, motion, position, balance, weight, vibration — are truly alive.”
Aerobic water workouts aren’t just good for the body; they’re good for the brain, too. “Blue Mind” states that water aerobics produce endorphins, stimulating the part of the brain that’s responsible for emotional processing, creating a euphoric feeling.
Lake Austin Spa Resort instructor Candyce Welch leads a Gentle Water Workout that focuses on flexibility, mobility, balance and core strength — all done while immersed in the liquid warmth of water. The class, which isn’t part of the resort’s regular programming, is challenging and requires participants to make a lot of little adjustments to maintain balance and proper form while in water.
Welch says the act of balancing in water gently works every muscle. After a brief warm-up, she leads the class through Pilates moves done with aquatic dumbbells, core stability and leg-sculpting exercises that incorporate swim noodles and simple movements that gradually increase heart rate.
Welch says water workouts like her Gentle Water Workout can easily be done at home. You just need a couple of props and access to a pool or a body of water that’s no more than five feet deep.
In addition to improving cardiovascular health and muscle tone, a multi-study analysis in Environmental Science and Technology indicated that being physically active in proximity to water improves self-esteem and mood at a greater rate than a natural environment alone.