5 Ways Surfing Aids Mental Health


Photos by Bel Hetherington

It’s World Ocean Day today, and we’ve got a lot to be thankful to the big blue for.

One thing’s for sure though—whenever I get in the ocean, I instantly feel better. Turns out, science has evidence to support why I would feel such a way, and how surfing can benefit those suffering from mental health too. Here are five ways the ocean helps.

Water immersion

Surfing is kind of like making a cup of tea. You are the teabag that goes in the water and blobs up and down for a while to produce dopamine and norepinephrine. Except the water has to be freezing (under 15 °C), not boiling. Surfing in cold water initiates an acute decrease in body temperature, which has been linked to improvements in psychological wellbeing as seen in winter swimmer studies. Turns out those weirdos swimming in budgie smugglers in the middle of winter are onto something after all.

Rest from Rumination

Rumination is when you continuously keep thinking about bad shit, over and over again. It’s common in people suffering from mental illness like PTSD and OCD. Surfing helps this by forcing you to think externally about what’s going on, not internally. In a study out of the UK, a group of combat veterans suffering from PTSD finally found reprieve from their suffering when they went out for a surf. No head noise in the green room.

Reduction of Social Isolation

Despite our never-ending search for the deserted barrels, the day to day of surfing usually involves interacting with people. This is particularly helpful to at-risk youth, and youth with disabilities. In another study out of the UK, a group of kids who struggled with mental health undertook social surfing programs that resulted in significant improvements in behaviours, social skills, self-esteem and emotional regulation. Surf therapy also helped autistic children to feel a sense of autonomy and the rhythms of the ocean helped with their sensory overload. Interactions in the surf allow us to feel connected to someone or at least something, which in times of struggle, is something we all need.

Exercise (duh)

I don’t need to tell you exercise is good for you. But I will. Quite good, in fact. Depending on your surfing ability and the wave conditions, paddling can be the equivalent of moderate to vigorous exercise intensity; a kind of exercise directly related to anti-inflammatory effects and the release of all those mood-boosting hormones, which helps with depression and anxiety.

Time in Nature

When we’re in nature, we feel good. When we exercise in nature, we feel even better. Cue surfing. Added to this is the exposure to natural light that surfing gives us. More sun, more serotonin, more good. It might also have something to do with the fact you have to leave your phone in the car for a second, and that looking at the ocean is far better than the unfinished job site you’ve just escaped from.

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