Water is within us and around us. It is sustenance and recreation.
From actor Ted Danson’s activism on behalf of oceans to the allure of boating,
here are some perspectives on life-giving H20.
By Allan Richter & Linda Melone
Ted Danson Cheers
for Ocean Health
During his fifth season playing affable bartender Sam Malone on “Cheers,” Ted Danson was walking with his daughters along the beach in Santa Monica, California, when they encountered a sign that read, “Water polluted. No Swimming.” Danson found himself at a loss for words when his girls asked why the beach was closed. The experience stirred the environmentalist within—and an ocean activist was born.
Danson’s affinity for the ocean and nature began earlier. Because his father was an anthropologist and his mother “a very spiritual person,” he learned it was important to be a good steward of the environment. Growing up in Arizona, Danson was influenced by the Hopi children he befriended; they had a deeper appreciation of the natural world. Though landlocked in the southwest, Danson would enjoy the ocean on childhood visits to family in California.
At age seven, Danson had a vivid dream that shaped his thinking. “I had a high fever. I woke up screaming and ran into my parents’ room. They asked me what was wrong and I described my nightmare. I was sitting on the beach and God’s voice said, ‘Ted, you have one hour to enter the oceans into this bucket,’ and then he gave me a spoon with holes in it. I’ve been thinking about the oceans for many years.”
Since that late 1980s walk on the Santa Monica beach, Danson has been an eager student of ocean health, culminating in the release of his recent cautionary but optimistic book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them (Rodale). “Science is saying that we are coming to a tipping point,” says Danson, whose book title borrows its name from the ocean conservation group he founded. “Science also shows that our oceans can bounce back if we make some necessary changes. We still have time to solve the problem.”
If you buy wild versus farmed fish because of the health benefits of the former—wild salmon has more healthful omega 3-oils than farmed salmon, for instance—you’re likely also helping the oceans. “Fish farming creates more pollution and overfishing pressure around the world,” Danson points out. Irresponsible fish farms pollute waters with fish waste and introduce toxic chemicals into the food chain and ultimately onto our dinner plates.
Every pound of farmed salmon takes five pounds of smaller fish, resulting in a net loss of protein. All of those smaller fish that are needed to create the farmed salmon are important species to the marine ecosystem, and many are edible by people as well.
Danson similarly rails against fishing on an industrial scale, saying the global fishing fleet is more than twice as large as the planet’s oceans can sustain. “Too often, destructive gear is used that kills everything in its path,” the actor/activist says. “Industrial fishing ships with huge nets catch and kill marine life—dolphins, sea turtles, birds. Bottom trawlers destroy deep sea coral and other seafloor habitats, which provide critical nurseries and feeding grounds for innumerable fish and shellfish species.
“Destructive fishing also jeopardizes the millions of small-scale fishermen and others who have depended on the oceans for their livelihood for generations,” Danson continues. “In addition, it threatens the nearly 3 billion people in the world who rely on animal protein that comes from the sea.”
Nevertheless, Danson sees his efforts as pro-fishing. “I want fishermen to be able to make a living for years to come. Many fishermen know their catch is shrinking. I have spoken with fishermen over the years. They understand, and many support, that changes need to be made in the industry to let the fish populations recover.”
Seafood fraud, in which less expensive fish such as tilapia is being passed off as grouper and red snapper, is one consequence of overfishing, says Danson, who says he loves seafood. “It is a disturbing trend, and most people don’t know they have been lied to and ripped off,” he says. “It disguises the fact that overfishing is taking place. This creates an illusion that we have an endless supply of fish when in actuality many of these species are on the brink of collapse. How can you believe that grouper is at risk when you can have a so-called grouper sandwich every day?”
To fight seafood fraud, Danson says, consumers should ask questions at the fish markets and restaurants they frequent: What kind of fish is it? Where was it caught? How was it caught? Was it farmed? Where was it farmed? “One good rule of thumb is to try and eat locally caught seafood if you don’t have any more information,” Danson says. A seafood guide, such as one from Monterey Bay Aquarium that you can download from Oceana’s site at Oceana.org, can help you choose fish that is available in abundance or farmed with the environment in mind.
Eating sustainable food and avoiding products, like plastics, that can damage the oceans are among ways that Danson suggests to help heal marine ecosystems. Despite the challenges, he says he remains optimistic.
“The oceans are resilient,” he says. “Fish populations can bounce back if given a breather from intense fishing pressure. Most of the oceans’ most vibrant ecosystems—coral reefs, for example—are near coastlines, and people are motivated to save them. We are getting the will, and now we just have to find the way.”
Swimming & Water Workouts
For an exercise program that’s easy on the joints, strengthens muscles and improves your cardiovascular fitness all at once, just add water. Exercising in an indoor pool or outdoor lake benefits all ages and fitness levels.
“Water makes it possible to jump higher, run harder, dance with more grace and accomplish more in less time than you can on land,” says MaryBeth Pappas Baun, MEd, health and wellness consultant and author of Fantastic Water Workouts: Proven Exercises and Routines for Toning, Fitness and Health (Human Kinetics). “Plus, the weightlessness and buoyancy of an aquatic environment comforts joints and improves circulation.”
In some cases the resistance that occurs when you exercise in water creates a higher calorie burn. “You can burn up to 525 calories in one hour of water walking, versus only 240 calories for walking on land,” says Baun.
Exercising in water heated to 82 degrees or so helps diminish arthritis pain, allowing joints to work through a greater range of motion, says Baun. The results of a 12-week study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing (1/07) showed improvements in knee and hip flexibility and strength, plus better aerobic fitness in participants with osteoarthritis of these joints. Earlier studies demonstrated strength gains in patients with rheumatoid arthritis when exercises were performed in a heated pool.
The cooling effect of working out in an unheated pool also produces benefits. “Much of the heat that the body generates during exercise gets dissipated into the water,” says Baun. “This is important for pregnant women and anybody who becomes overheated with exercise.” This would include people with multiple sclerosis, for example.
Jane Katz, EdD, 68, knows first-hand the healing benefits of water workouts. A competitive swimmer, Katz became interested in water therapy after a serious car accident in 1961. “Doctors told me I’d never swim again,” says Katz, professor in the department of physical education and athletics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of Your Water Workout: No-Impact Aerobic and Strength Training (Broadway Books). Katz was competing again only months after her accident, which she credits to using a combination of Pilates and water therapy.
Katz now teaches firefighters and police officers how to swim in an aqua bootcamp type of program. “Water exercises work well for people with injuries or who have had a hip replacement,” says Katz. For those afraid of deep water, aquatic jogging belts provide vertical balance and security. “The belt leaves your legs free to exercise. Your head remains out of the water, so you don’t have to worry about your hair or face being underwater,” says Katz, who swims twice a day.
For fitness benefits, strive for a water workout two to three times a week and cross-train with land-based exercises for a well-rounded program, says Baun. Other water exercise tips:
• Only use flotation devices designed for water exercise
• Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
• Start with 10 to 15 minutes of water walking directionally forward, back and sideways, being sure to stand tall and engage your core muscles
• Perform stretches holding onto the poolside
• Start each workout with a slow warmup tempo and end with a cooldown period
Water Births, a Gentler Option
A nearly painless delivery for mom and a gentle welcome into the world for baby make water births sound almost too good to be true. But it’s all legit, according to Barbara Harper, RD, CD, CCE, founder of Waterbirth International and author of Gentle Birth Choices (Inner Traditions). Harper first gave birth in water in 1984 while working as a nurse in a holistic medical clinic. “From the moment my son was born I knew I had to tell people about this,” Harper says.
Harper now works full time educating people all over the world about the desirability of giving birth in water. “In 1991, only two hospitals in the United States had water birthing programs,” she notes. “By 2007, we had 130 hospitals with water birth protocols in place with an additional 600 with protocol for water labor (in which women labor in water but give birth traditionally).”
“In the beginning I’d have only home-birth midwives attending my seminars, but now doctors regularly show up to learn about water births,” Harper adds.
Water births ease pain by the principles of hydrotherapy, in which altering water temperature and pressure serves therapeutic purposes. In a labor free of medication or other intervention, the woman can “go into her natural hormonal flow,” which includes the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain reducers, says Harper. “It’s the best non-narcotic, non-pharmacological pain/comfort management approach.”
When she’s fully immersed in the water, the mother gets a surge of oxytocin, a hormone involved in the birthing process that facilitates a sense of bonding and contentment, accompanied by endorphins, says Harper. The tub must be deep enough—18 inches deep or more—to allow the mother’s body to become buoyant.
As a result, the mother experiences significantly shorter labor and less pain, with less need for pain-relieving drugs. Water births resuit in fewer episiotomies, surgical procedures designed to avoid vaginal tearing. In addition, the mother’s body is in a more vertical position, which means gravitational pull can allows the baby to descend more easily. “The baby takes its first breath once it hits the open air,” says Harper.
Results are different for each woman, but on average, water births reduce pain up to 50%, says Debbie Boucher, APN, CNM, a licensed certified midwife in Libertyville, Illinois. “Plus it’s a more gentle entry into the world for the baby,” says Boucher.
Barring unique health considerations, any woman can have a water birth, says Boucher. “You don’t need any special preparation or training,” she says. “You learn everything you need to know from your midwife.” To find a qualified midwife seek a midwife licensed in the state where they’re practicing, she adds. “There’s currently no specific training for water birthing.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, www.aap.org) neither promotes nor denounces water births, says Harper. “Their stance is there’s no evidence of potential harm to the baby or any known benefits.” The AAP’s website states: “Delivery in water does not substantially increase the risk of death or of admission to a neonatal unit, but we cannot exclude smaller differences.” The group notes water aspiration or a snapped umbilical cord as potential problems but could not adequately investigate further without available data.
“It’s a difficult thing to randomize and control, so to get large numbers is virtually impossible,” says Harper.
Spreading the word about the benefits of water births remains a major challenge. “The acceptance of water births requires a paradigm shift of humungous proportions,” says Harper. For further information visit www.waterbirth.org.
Drinking Water Safely
No wonder so many health advocates recommend that people drink eight glasses of water a day, or more when you exercise. Water helps flush out toxins, carry nutrients to cells, ease digestion, regulate body temperature and is important for blood flow. Identifying our cleanest water sources, however, can be difficult—some tap water has been found to contain traces of prescription drugs and chemicals, while bottled water can leech chemicals in plastic and the containers needlessly occupy space in landfills.
The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org), an advocacy organization, advises consumers to choose filtered tap water over bottled water largely because more details from governing agencies are available about tap water. The Food and Drug Administration oversees the bottled water industry but does not require suppliers to disclose where the water was sourced, what contaminants might have been found in it or how the water was treated or tested, observes Nneka Leiba, an EWG research analyst and the group’s lead water investigator.
In October 2008, the EWG tested ten major bottled water brands and found 38 pollutants. “Many are the same pollutants found in tap water—disinfecting byproducts, fertilizer residue and other industrial contaminants, even the pain medication acetaminophen,” Leiba says. In about half of its tests, the EWG found that bottled water is sourced from tap water. “Sometimes it’s further filtered and purified, and sometimes it’s not,” Leiba adds, “but it’s really hard to tell when you pick up a bottle of water. With tap water, you know that it’s tap water, and you can treat it appropriately to lower those contaminants.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees tap water, requires utilities annually to provide a consumer confidence report with details that can be found at the EWG’s database: www.ewg.org/tap-water/home. After establishing what contaminants need to be removed, consumers can visit the group’s online filter guide to select an appropriate device at
Distilled water is another approach that Leiba recommends; consider adding minerals if you use this method. Another idea, deionization, can help remove excess calcium salts from so-called hard water, Leiba says. And a whole-house filter can filter all the water coming into a home.
Reverse osmosis and activated carbon are the two main types of filters (versus styles of filters, such as pitchers or faucet-mounted). Activated carbon models tend to be less expensive; you can buy a pitcher or faucet-mounted filter for about $15 to $50. “They will remove many of the contaminants that are widely distributed, such as chlorine, and some will even get out asbestos and lead,” says Leiba. Reverse osmosis systems will remove inorganic compounds such as fluoride, chrome six, perchlorate and arsenic, as well as the contaminants that activated carbon filters remove.
“Not everybody has chrome 6 in their water, not everybody has perchlorate,” Leiba says. “So you want to get the appropriate filter. No matter what, you always want to use a filter. Many utilities say they provide safe water but in case there is a break in the system line or your pipes are leeching lead, you always want to have that safety zone of a filter.”
The EWG also recommends shower filters for consumers who are concerned about contaminants such as trihalomethanes (THMs) or other disinfection byproducts. THMs form when the chlorine or bromine used to disinfect drinking water mixes with human or animal waste from sewage.
Consuming THMs is like taking excess antibiotics, observes Jeffrey A. Morrison, MD, author of Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind: Eliminate Environmental Toxins (Hudson Street Press). In high concentrations, Morrison adds, THMs can be carcinogenic.
Adds Leiba, “We want consumers to know that when you take a shower a lot of these contaminants are vaporized into the air and may be inhaled, but the main concern is drinking water.”
Boating for Inner Peace
Elizabeth Austen grew up alongside Lake Erie in Ohio, but these days the 45-year-old Denver sales trainer gets a sense of home sitting in her kayak along a meandering stretch of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado.
It is on this river, and others in Colorado, where Austen can marvel at herons and bighorn sheep in the distance and be challenged and calmed by whitewater and mellower runs. “This is where I belong,” says Austen. “People who feel a natural affinity for water will say that it’s a little like going home. This is my spiritual thing.”
Stories of boaters like Austen, coupled with scientific research on nature, especially water environments, make a compelling case for boating’s therapeutic benefits. “Research has shown that natural environments can promote what’s called psychological restoration, particularly in terms of mood, attention fatigue and stress recovery,” says Mary Gregerson, PhD, a Leavenworth, Kansas,
environmental health psychologist and principal in Health, Environment and Performance Psychology, a consulting business.
Gregerson points to a study of topophilia—a person’s love of place—by social ecologist Oledele Ogunseitan, who set out to measure the link between environment and mental well-being. Ogunseitan studied four categories: natural (water, trees, flowers, hills), sensory (colors, smells, sounds, light), familiarity (spaciousness, privacy) and complexity (mystery, texture). He asked 379 people to rate environmental features and their general sense of mental well-being. Bodies of water, along with flowers, resonated more than other features (Environmental Health Perspectives 2005).
The human affinity for boating can be explained by the evolution of mammals from reptiles that were once fish, says Judith Ritterman, MS, LMFT, LMHC, a Holbrook, New York therapist. “Most important, for nine months we are in a liquid environment,” Ritterman says. “By nature humans are water creatures. We’re gestated in water. I think there’s an internal urge to go back to the water at times.”
It’s pretty easy to let the mind wander when surrounded by a large body of water, Ritterman adds. “It infuses us with that sense of there being something much greater than ourselves,” she says. “The vastness of the water, whether it’s the bay or the ocean, is hard to conceptualize.”
That the fishing tome The Compleat Angler (Arcturus) by Izaak Walton has been in continuous print for nearly 350 years is further evidence of the strong human bond to water, says Gregerson. “That says something about the resonance of such an experience as being out on the water,” Gregerson says. “It is a human benefit that endures over time.”
Austen, the Colorado whitewater kayaker who now teaches others to kayak, recalls an early outing when she realized why she was so attracted to the sport and the river.
“I was with a group of friends in the middle of a class 4 section of the Arkansas River, approaching a rapid and losing my nerve,” Austen says. “I asked a friend if I could follow his line through the rapid because I couldn’t remember the route. He smiled and said, ‘Sure, just remember we’re dancing with the water, not fighting it.’ We paddled the sweetest line through that rapid. That was when I really got it. Later I realized that this idea works well in most areas of life.”