Could the ocean hold the answer to your chronic pain and health problems?
Biarritz is a small city on the southwest coast of France, flanked by the Bay of Biscay.
Known as the "Queen of the Basque Coast," it's a place rich with history, garnished with old-timey charm, and highlighted by sunbathed sandy beaches.
For centuries, Biarritz has been a destination for believers in the healing power of its seawater.
They call it thalassothérapie. (Sorry, buckaroos, no lassos involved.) It's a derivative of the Greek words for sea (thálassa) and therapy (therapeía), and people flock to Biarritz's beaches, spas, and treatment centers for a sprinkle of that sweet ocean magic.
But in the 1960s, a radical (in the slangiest sense of the word) new benefit of Biarritz's waters was discovered: surfing.
With a swell just right for almost any skill level, Biarritz has become one of the top surf destinations in Europe.
Today, an experimental health initiative in Biarritz, created by France's Olympic committee, is keeping in the town's tradition of looking to the ocean for good health.
Biarritz doctors are piloting a program that lets them prescribe water sports for chronic health issues.
Yes, with a script reading "catch some waves" from one of roughly 20 participating physicians, patients are taking four-month lessons in surfing, paddleboarding, swimming, and other lower-intensity ocean aerobics.
Nicolas Guillet, one of the program's organizers, is confident it's working. "After six months, the results are already positive in our eyes," he told Nouvel Observateur. Most patients, he says, complete the program and continue the sport on a regular basis.
The doctors say ocean sports amp up our health in a lot of different ways.
For starters, you get to play in the sun! Guillaume Barucq, a physician involved in the program, says the sun helps our bodies make vitamin D, which protects against cancer, diabetes, and lots of other health problems. (Obligatory PSA: Always wear sunscreen!)
Barucq, an avid surfer, calls the program "miraculous." He says ocean sports can improve blood flow, build core and extremity strength, and relieve pain.
One patient described her treatment as "revolutionary." She's a 40-year-old woman who presented with a decade of chronic back pain. And after only six months of stand-up paddleboard lessons, she was all but cured of her pain.
There are psychological benefits to being in the ocean, too. Barucq says breaking waters (e.g., waterfalls, waves, and even showers) release negative ions into the air, which can improve our moods — or get us "stoked," as surfers might say.
While the research on negative ions isn't settled, it does weigh on the side of, well, the positive. A 2013 study found that negative air ion treatments significantly reduced the severity of mood disorder symptoms and boosted the moods of healthy subjects.
The pilot program in Biarritz is especially promising because it could change France's tendency to overmedicate.
"It's also about enacting cultural change in a country where 90% of patients who come out of the doctor's surgery do so with a medical prescription," said Barucq.
Even better? The program doesn't cost the French social security system a penny ... or centime, anyway.
It's fully funded by the town of Biarritz, with support from a few health associations and a mere 10 euros (just under $11) per patient — a pill most health consumers can swallow.
With global health care costs on the rise, hopefully the world is taking notes from "The Queen of the Basque Coast." The ocean — and nature in general — may not be a total cure-all, but it's clearly worth a regular dose.