“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.” – Céline Cousteau, preface to Blue Mind
Water, like breathing, is synonymous with life. Our bodies are up to 60% water, and we must consume water regularly to sustain life.
And like breathing, there’s more to water than just sustaining life—there’s also a healing component to it. We know this instinctively. “Going to the beach” is analogous to relaxation and vacation. Almost 30% of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties to be close to the ocean and feel the water’s calming effects.
It turns out that water can also help our breathing. In this post, we’ll examine how being in the water, near it, or just listening to its sounds can be good for our lungs.
How Being in Water Improves Our Breathing: Free Resistance Breathing
This is important because resistance breathing, particularly inspiratory muscle strength training, has many benefits, such as reducing inflammation and blood pressure. Although being in the water adds a different kind of resistance, it’s plausible that some of the same benefits might occur. For example, it has been shown that aquatic exercise improves respiratory endurance more than exercise on land.
So, the next time you’re in the water, consider it free resistance training for your breath, strengthening your lungs so you can breathe more efficiently when you’re on land.
How Being Near Water Benefits Our Breathing
Being in nature is really good for us. When we go into nature, our blood pressure lowers, our heart rate slows down, and we decrease the stress hormones in our bodies. For these reasons, time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, reduce negative emotions, and improve memory, among other benefits.
Adding water might enhance these benefits. Being near “blue spaces” has been shown to improve mental health and well-being and promote more physical activity.
All these benefits appear to be related to the effortless triggering of the body’s “relaxation response,” which calms our breathing without having to do any specific breathing exercise.
So, by going to the beach or hiking along a stream, we can get similar benefits of slow breathing exercises without trying. Or, for an even bigger boost, you can perform relaxation breathing techniques while sitting near the ocean or a running stream.
But, if you can’t make it into nature, there’s still hope. And it’s in your headphones.
How Hearing Water Can Help Us Calm Our Breathing
In Blue Mind, we learn that water’s frequency and rhythmic nature are similar to that of the human breath. As neuroscientist Petr Janata says, “If I ask you to close your eyes and turn on a recording of the ocean, I can change your mood immediately.”
To utilize these effects, we can use headphones to listen to ocean, river, or creek sounds. Using it while you work at your desk could help keep you (and your breathing) more relaxed. Or, my favorite, you can play relaxing water sounds while performing a slow breathing practice to get even more benefits.
Water is Good for Us and Our Breathing
To summarize, water is good for you and your breathing. If you go into the water, you get free resistance breathing, helping to strengthen your respiratory muscles. If you get in nature near water, you can naturally trigger the relaxation response and slow your breathing and heart rate. Lastly, simply listening to the sound of water might calm your breathing or help you achieve deeper relaxation during your breathing sessions.
Pick one (or all) of these methods, and enjoy harnessing the power of water for better breathing.
Additional Ways to Support Your Breath
This post was inspired by the excellent book Blue Mind by Wallace J Nichols. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in water’s power to make us healthier and happier.
About the Author
Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.