Almost all water sports and activities provide benefits to our physical fitness and health, but some are unique in their capacity to offer a comprehensive workout for both body and mind.
Surfing is just such a sport and continues to grow in popularity every year. Of course, not everyone has ready access to the beach on a daily basis, so consider yourself lucky if you do. The rest of us will just have to count the days until our next adventure and watch a bunch of YouTube videos of people catching waves in the meantime.
We chose to examine the specific health and fitness benefits of surfing out of a long list of other water sports we could have chosen from, for a couple of reasons. First, surfing is a prime example of a water sport that by the very nature of the activity requires that you engage your full body. The benefits to core strength, cardiovascular health and respiratory health are undeniable. Second, surfing is a water sport that also offers immense benefits for mental health and fitness. It is this cross-section of mind and body health that really interests us. This is certainly a factor for those people who mold lifestyles around the sport and make it a part of their daily lives. Talk to any serious surfer and they will tell you that the benefits of surfing go far beyond just building strength and muscle and looking good.
But before we explore the variety of ways in which surfing positively impacts emotional and mental health, let’s first unpack some of the main benefits to our physical health and fitness.
Anyone who has ever even taken a surfing lesson will tell you there is no doubt about it: Surfing builds core strength and lean muscle, and not in just one muscle group. Rather, surfing strengthens and tones muscles throughout the body, including the legs, back, abdominals, arms, shoulders and chest. It is a strenuous workout that requires that all of your support muscles work in tandem with larger muscles groups, which also has the natural effect of developing balance, coordination and core strength.
The big bucket physical activities associated with surfing are paddling through the water, “popping up” (transitioning from your stomach to your legs atop the board), and then finally maintaining your balance as you stay on top of your board while riding a wave.
Sounds simple, right? Not so much.
While with the right amount of practice and dedication anyone can become a competent surfer and totally enjoy the sport, it does take time to get it down. When you do, you’ll not only be having a blast, but you’ll also be getting a world-class workout. As you’re riding your surfboard you’re essentially in various stages of the squat position, which is arguably the most complete core-strengthening movement there is. And with surfing, you’re also mixing in muscle building and toning from your paddling and popping, as well as the cardiovascular exercise from expending the energy required for the whole routine. Surfing for an hour can help you burn up to 300 calories! You’re also out in the sun and getting a needed dose of vitamin D. (Wear your sunscreen).
In what other ways does surfing impact our physical fitness and overall health? Beyond the clear muscle building and toning benefits, surfing improves coordination and balance. You’ll find that this affects other parts of your life and that you will generally feel more sure-footed and confident as a result. People who take part in activities like surfing sleep better. You don’t have to look at the countless academic studies that demonstrate this to know it intuitively, and if you’ve ever been out surfing for even a few hours, you can attest to it as well.
It’s clear that surfing provides nearly unparalleled physical benefits in the world of water sports, but before getting fully into surfing, not everyone realizes the extent to which it can also meaningfully impact mental health and fitness.
Perhaps the greatest benefit surfing has on mental health is that it has the ability to completely empty out the mind and alleviate stress.
Vigorous activities like surfing require that we exert ourselves physically and also mentally through concentration. Concentration and focus are required to keep yourself up on the board, and developing these attributes naturally helps to give your thinking-mind a break from the constant chatter. It’s from this perspective that you begin to experience the stress relief that surfing affords those people who are willing to stick with it through the learning process. Once you’ve reached a certain comfort level at which point you are able to go out by yourself confidently, you can take it at your own pace. An increase in self-confidence is also a natural side-benefit of learning to surf. It is not impossible to surf! It is totally learnable, but it is difficult. Tackling a new sport and finding your own degree of mastery in it provides a sense of fulfillment and gratification that you can’t find just anywhere.
Surfing also helps you get in touch with a side of yourself you may not have fostered up to that point. You may begin to see how much your mind and body need to work in unison to surf successfully, and for many people, this contributes to a greater sense of overall wellness, bringing together mind and body to push through perceived limitations, accept incremental failures and successes, and achieve new goals as you advance. It’s all a part of the process and journey.
When you’re pressing your body to the limits, the tendencies to worry, plan, overthink… they all just drift away in the breeze. When you can take some of the stress off and just enjoy yourself, while also getting a great workout, your mood improves, you sleep better, you feel better, and you even look better!