Experts say fall beach therapy really does give you a mood massage

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FORT LAUDERDALE — Ahhh, the beach. The baking sun, soft sand, cresting waves and sea breeze on your face.

There’s nothing quite like spending time at the beach, South Florida’s and elsewhere. Why do we feel so good there? And are the benefits from the beach physical or psychological?

As snowbirds and tourists flock back to our shores, some South Florida medical experts and beachgoers offered their insights.

The beach is a feast for the senses.

Dr. Benjamin Bensadon, an assistant professor of clinical biomedical science at Florida Atlantic University, said the sand alone can help chill us out.

“You can feel the sand, it’s often soft, and that can be a relaxing tactile stimulus,” he said.

That Zen-like tranquility many feel at the beach can relate to the water’s aquatic hue. Studies have shown that blue has a calming effect on people.

“It does provide a soothing environment, which is reflected in the ocean,” said Dr. William Dorfman, a psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University. His practice office is intentionally painted blue to elicit relaxation in patients.

The sea’s soundtrack also may trigger the brain to release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, Dorfman said.

“It’s definitely the sound,” said Debbie Duff, 51, as she sat under an umbrella on Hollywood beach in Hollywood, Fla. “The rolling of the waves, the constant sound. It’s always there. For me, it’s mental, but I do like to swim.”

Some beachgoers think the ocean breeze improves their breathing. It’s commonly thought that beach air carries negative ions that help recharge the body and improve mood.

“Getting out in the fresh air and getting in the clean water is just exhilarating,” said Margaret Timmins, 84, who swims a half-hour daily in Delray Beach. “It makes you feel better. You are getting good, clean, fresh air right off the ocean. I can move. I can kick. I can do anything I want in the water. It’s comfortable. It’s cool.”

Jennifer Pichardo-Poulshock, of Delray Beach, says the sea air soothes her 5-month-old son, Matthew.

“I saw how beneficial it is, how much he was enjoying it, and that’s why I began taking him so much,” Pichardo-Poulshock, 38, said of her daily trips. “The way that he would breathe because of the ocean air, his breathing would change … It transforms him completely.”

Natural pull

About 60 percent of an adult’s body is made up of H2O. The natural pull we feel toward the beach may have an evolutionary tie, Dorfman said.

“That is sort of our biological call to our origins, where we feel most comfortable,” said Dorfman, referring to the theory that the species emerged from the sea. “It’s a pull that is hard to define.”

Gazing out at the water — whether by sitting on the sand or peering out of a home window — can do wonders to clear the mind.

“When you look out at the beach, there is sort of this infinity, this sense of perspective to get some distance from your everyday problems,” said Dorfman, who enjoys the ocean view from his Lauderdale-by-the-Sea home.

And he uses that image to help patients. “When I do relaxation training or hypnosis, one of the typical scenes in visual imagery that I induce is visions of the beach.”

Perhaps it helps that, in going to the beach, we are actively trying to leave everything else behind.

“You go to be at the beach. Whether it’s the sun, water and sand combination, you know you are at the beach (just) to be,” Bensadon said. “It’s pressure-free.”

Sun exposure causes the body to produce vitamin D, which helps with bone strength and calcium absorption.

While sunbathing with three girlfriends on Hollywood beach one recent morning, Jeanne Farchione, 57, said she felt “exhilarated, relaxed, refreshed.”

“It’s mental, but physically I feel so much better here,” said Farchione, who was visiting from Rochester, N.Y.

There may be a physiological reason for that, according to Jaime Tartar, an associate professor of psychology research at Nova Southeastern.

“It’s a combination of scattered blue light (short wavelength that causes the sky to appear blue) and bright sunlight, which induce these cells in the retina to release melanopsin, which can increase mood.”

Of course, the sun also increases the risk of skin cancer. “There are hazards to too much sun exposure, cancer-related. If there is burning, that is bad for your skin,” Bensadon said. “But some sun is good for you. The vitamin D.”

Farchione and company made sure to spritz themselves with sunscreen.