Is surfing therapeutic? This is a question that may sound silly to some but the more time you spend around surfers and the ocean the more you wonder. I have asked myself why so many surfers are always relaxed and seem happy after surfing regardless of the number of waves they’ve caught. I have also experienced the feeling myself of just pure tranquility sitting out in the lineup on my board waiting for a wave. So I figured I’d do some research and see what other people had to say on the topic. Here is what I found.
Research is being done all around the world testing surfing’s therapeutic effects for all kinds of illnesses. Our world is full of symptom-specific medications and IVs and doctors and patients alike are finally starting to understand the value of treatment that targets a patient’s overall wellbeing. Surfing uniquely provides both broad and specific benefits. Engaging in a challenging ocean sport like surfing stimulates overall health, happiness and a sense of personal achievement. That being said, surfing also provides physical exercise while giving patients the benefits of hydrotherapy. With all this being said many people are not just living to surf, rather they are surfing to live.
A few of the “illnesses” we see surfing having a therapeutic effect on are cystic fibrosis, autism, polytrauma, PTSD, and serious depression. With more serious forms of depression, a doctoral student from the University of Iowa, Ryan Pittsinger, studied the link between surfing and mental health. He chose to compare the effects of surfing with other sports. We know that all kinds of athletic activity cause the release of endorphins, which therefore cause positive emotions. Surfing releases more than any other activity. It causes feelings of tranquility and serenity. Surfers usually get out of the water with a sense of accomplishment and a boosted self-esteem. (most of the time) These lasting effects also make surfing helpful in overcoming different types of drug addiction. Many rehab centers, mainly in California and Hawaii, have integrated surfing into their programs with great success. The United States Marine Corp has also incorporated surf therapy into effective treatment of PTSD. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation brings therapists and surf instructors to Camp Pendleton military base in California for 2-3 week cycles. It is suggested that surfing allows those suffering from PTSD to get in their “zone”, which can flow into all areas of their life. Others argue that the body movement inflicted by surfing causes a shift in the metabolic processes of the brain. This changes brain chemistry, resulting in healing and relief from PTSD. Another answer could be that surfing is so physically exhausting that it allows those with PTSD to sleep soundly, and the focus needed while surfing distracts their thoughts from disturbing memories. For children and adults with autism, spending time in the water can force you to abandon OCD routines. The ocean also provides a calming remedy from sensory overload.
Researchers in Australia found that the lungs of surfers with cystic fibrosis were much healthier than the lungs of patients who did not surf. These researchers discovered that the saltwater mist of the ocean helps rehydrate airway surfaces. This, in turn, lubricates the lungs which makes it much easier for those dealing with cystic fibrosis to clear their air passages and break up mucus. Regardless of the illness, I think we can all agree surfing has therapeutic effects on the people that need it most.