The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Surfing
Could there be more to surfing than the smooth progress of wax over water? Mental health experts think so. There’s abundant evidence that the exercise, environment, and community around surfing are beneficial to mental health. The implications are significant. Beyond simply delivering a "feel-good buzz" to experienced board riders, surfing could play a valuable part in managing conditions other treatments can’t reach. The secret is out: There really is no such thing as a bad day of surfing.
The Physical Benefits of Surfing We Knew About
Wave riding gives a full body workout that engages all the muscle groups, burning around 250 calories an hour in the process. Research shows that two or more hours of physical activity a week lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other health issues. Getting out on the water, even in a wetsuit, unleashes the additional benefits of thalassotherapy. Mineral-rich sea water boosts the immune system, soothes allergies, and nourishes the skin. It might cultivate a laid-back, effortless image, but surfing is physically demanding beneath the surface. Even beginners will soon notice an increase in muscle mass and tone, greater flexibility, and better breathing.
The Surprising Mental Health Benefits
The chance to set the blood pumping and the lungs pounding is not the only reason for surfing. Clearly, there’s something far more cerebral going on that a treadmill or spin class can’t match. The essential ingredient that hooks surfers, turning novices into lifelong paddlers, is the switch to a meditative state that kicks in on the water. Surfing is the ultimate mindfulness activity, as the body tunes into the natural rhythms of each coming break, and the attention focuses on nothing more than hitting the sweet spot at the right time. Runners or cyclists might experience their own high, but it’s often with one eye on the stopwatch. Surfers reach a state of bliss in which time seems to stop altogether.
How Surfing Lifts the Mood
Healthcare studies show that regular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of depression by 30 percent or more. In fact, regular exposure to surfing can deliver the same results as common antidepressants, with none of the side effects. The cardio element to surfing helps release mood-improving endorphins, reducing the body’s level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol at the same time. Surfing focuses the mind, requiring you to concentrate intensely on a few simple processes. The sense of accomplishment from catching the wave and riding it to the end boosts self-esteem and triggers a flood of positive emotions.
Taking the Mental Health Benefits of Surfing Seriously
The high that riders experience is no secret in the surfing community. However, one paper presented to the American Psychological Association took it further. Based on a study of surfers on Manhattan Beach, CA, it concluded that riding waves for just 30 minutes increased positive feelings. This research then formed the basis of Surf Therapy, which applies "flow theory"—or the positive effects of being in the zone—to a variety of treatments. The U.S. Marine Corps, for example, incorporates Surf Therapy into its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Surfers Are Less Likely to Suffer Anxiety and Insomnia
There’s a danger of trivializing depression and anxiety, and surfing alone is not touted as a remedy for the root cause of any mental health issue; however, it can alleviate the symptoms. Where anxiety is concerned, surfing gently conditions the mind to autoregulate the tendency to panic in "fight or flight" situations. After all, there is an inherent risk in surfing, especially when cutting down the face of a powerful wave. A trace of fear that sets the adrenaline flowing is good. Surfing turns fear into a manageable habit. As for insomnia, any surfer will recognize the deep, blissful slumber that follows a day out on the waves. The exercise and focus restores the body’s natural demand for sleep.
Surfers Are Taking a Lead on Mental Health
Surfing has always been defined by its sense of community. Around the world, several surfer groups are proactively promoting surfing as a solution to mental health issues. In the U.K., The Wave Project became the world’s first government-funded Surf Therapy course in 2010, affiliated to the International Surf Therapy Organization. In Australia, Waves of Wellness has achieved outstanding success with a program that helps young people address functional recovery, youth trauma, or PTSD through surfing.
A Solution for Autism?
Autism affects one in 68 children in the U.S., and those afflicted often become anxious or distressed when the senses are overloaded. Surfing helps those who have autism manage their environment, swapping the outside world for the tranquility of the ocean. It took a surfing legend to make the connection. "Izzy" Paskowitz, son of "Doc" Paskowitz, set up Surfers Healing in Australia to help his own son deal with the symptoms of autism.
Surfing: A Mood Boost for Mental Health
It takes only a single bout of surfing to feel the mental health benefits, according to one medical study. Those benefits change over time, too. At first, surfers chase the sense of achievement of nailing the first wave. With progress, surfers can switch from focusing on the rudiments to releasing their consciousness into the entire environment, tuned in completely. In either case, the challenge is introspective and manageable on your own terms, in sharp contrast to competitive pursuits where the outcome is in the hands of the opponent.
Written by Nick Marshall for Knockaround