Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing?

This study used data from the UK’s census to examine how health varied across the country and has found that people are more likely to have good health the closer they live to the sea.

As part of the Blue Gym programme of research around aquatic environments (or blue space) and health and wellbeing, we examined the relationships between proximity to the coast and self-reported health.

The coast has long been used as an environment for convalescence, holidays and physical activity, and in this study we set out to investigate whether simply living near to the coast could be associated with better population health and wellbeing.

We used 2001 Census data to carry out a small-area cross-sectional study. The 2001 Census asked every person to rate their general health status in the previous 12 months as ‘Good’, ‘Fairly Good’ or ‘Not Good’.

We calculated the proportion of the population rating their health as ‘Good’ for Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) across England. There are 32,482 LSOAs in England, and these areas are used to produce small area statistics on a wide variety of issues including health and socio-economic status.

Data derived from this Census question have frequently been used to study the distribution and determinants of poor health. However, in this study we considered ‘good’ health as a measure of positive health and wellbeing. Responses to this type of simple self-reported health status question have been shown to be strongly related to more sophisticated, subjective and objective measures of physical and mental health.

We used a Geographic Information System to calculate each LSOA’s proximity to the coast, and applied regression models to investigate the association between ‘good’ health rates and coastal proximity. Our analyses accounted for other factors including age, sex, socio-economic deprivation and green space, and were carried out separately for urban and rural areas.

Proximity to the coast was positively associated with good health, with a small, but significant increase in the percentage of people reporting good health among populations residing closer to the sea. We also found that, consistent with similar analyses of green space accessibility, the positive effects of coastal proximity may be greater amongst more socio-economically deprived communities.

Whilst this type of study design cannot prove cause and effect, it is consistent with findings from our other studies. These findings indicate that the health and wellbeing effects of living near to, and spending time at, the coast warrant further investigation.

Many people live near the coast, and health promoting characteristics of coastal environments could be made more accessible, or transferred to other settings (e.g. through virtual environments). However, any policy initiatives designed to reap public health and wellbeing benefits from our coasts would need to balance these benefits against threats from extreme events, climate change impacts, and inappropriate coastal development.

This study is published in the journal Health & Place

Read a BBC report on the reseach here

Full citation

Benedict W. Wheeler, Mathew White, Will Stahl-Timmins, Michael H. Depledge, Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? Health & Place, Available online 30 June 2012, ISSN 1353-8292, 10.1016/j.healthplace.2012.06.015.