In the heat of summer, can ocean bathing bring some zen to a hectic work week? Bethany Reitsma dips her toe in.
It's 7am on a Tuesday and I'm walking along Auckland's Pt Chevalier beach, alone with my thoughts against a backdrop of blue sky and gentle waves. It's early on a workday - what am I doing here?
Over the course of several centuries, ocean bathing has been lauded as a cure for pretty much everything. Now it's a wellness trend for 2020.
Making it a regular part of your routine is said to have countless benefits for physical and mental health.
I'm going to try to get down to the beach at least three times in a week to see if this rings true.
Julius Caesar was said to be a great swimmer. His soldiers had to learn to swim in their armour – an essential skill for conquering island nations like Britain.
As Britain developed, doctors in the 1600s prescribed bathing in seawater to heal ills. They also recommended drinking it, a fad that fortunately hasn't stuck.
Beaches soon became health destinations. The affluent flocked to the shores seeking treatment for all kinds of ailments from gout to "melancholy". With the Industrial Revolution, the beach became a place for workers from smoky cities to escape to, and the beach holiday was born.
Novelist Fanny Burney enjoyed the occasional sunrise dip. In 1782 she wrote: "We rose at six o'clock in the morn and by the pale blink o' the moon went to the seaside ... and into the ocean we plunged. It was cold but pleasant. I have bathed so often as to lose my dread of the operation."
Even Queen Victoria took the plunge - apparently the first royal woman to do so. In 1847, she had a bathing machine brought to her private beach on the Isle of Wight off Britain's south coast. She's quoted as saying the experience was "delightful … till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled".
But this is more than mere swimming. The latest push for ocean bathing was partly inspired by Dr Wallace J. Nichols' book Blue Mind and his TED talk by the same name which outlines the practice of taking comfort in being immersed in water. Conde Nast Traveller notes 2020 as the year wellness will turn to nature, highlighting the blue mind trend in particular as we try to make nature a bigger part of our daily lives.
Exercising in natural environments like the ocean is said to have greater benefits than exercising inside or in man-made spaces.
Last year Dr Jane Hart wrote in the medical journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies that interacting with "blue space", that is natural water sources, can benefit mental health.
"In fact, being in or near water environments may lead to relaxation, improved social interactions, better brain health, enhanced physical activity, and relief from stress, according to emerging research.
"To optimise health, experts suggest that clinicians consider a simple prescription for their patients – spending more time on or near water."
She also pointed to living near coastal waters as being linked to improved physical and mental health.
Dr Wallace Nichols wrote in Blue Mind that "in a natural environment, and in particular, when we are on or by the water, there is a high degree of statistical predictability because it is so much the same from moment to moment".
In a nutshell, he means the ocean is varied enough to engage our brains but also has a consistency to it, encouraging a calmed mindset.
"The background is fairly controlled and a little dreamy – in other words, highly normalised, which allows part of the brain to relax," he wrote.
Initially I felt slightly guilty about my 7am dip: I associate the beach with a day off. When I parked up at Pt Chev it was blissfully empty apart from a couple of people walking their dogs.
I headed into the water. The first thing I noticed was the stillness. In the early morning the sea was calm, and not too cold, although the tide was already getting low. I had space to just breathe and listen to the gentle lapping of water, move my limbs gently to keep afloat, and relax everything. There was only me, the sea, and the sky.
I decided beaches in the morning are magical places. I headed back the next day for a longer dip. I made it out three times that week and twice the next, occasionally switching it up for an evening swim.
It's not often I take time to truly be still and just listen to nature – I'm always rushing around, surrounded by noise.
Going for a dip in the sea might not cure everything, and you might need a wetsuit in winter, but it definitely put me in a better frame of mind on the days I managed to get down to the beach. I felt a lot more relaxed, which made me more focused when I got to work.