The Inertia Health Editor
Take two of these and call me in the morning. Photo: Cyrus Sutton

Take two of these and call me in the morning. Photo: Cyrus Sutton


The Inertia

To many surfers, myself included, surfing is a cure-all. Be it a rough day at work, a long day of class or just day-to-day stress, there is no medicine quite like getting in the water for an hour or two. However, there are others out there for whom surfing provides actual medical treatment. Research is being done around the world testing surfing’s therapeutic effects for all kinds of maladies. In a world full of symptom-specific pills and IVs, doctors and patients alike are beginning to understand the value of treatment that addresses a patient’s overall wellbeing. Surfing uniquely provides both broad and specific benefits. Engaging in a challenging ocean sport like surfing encourages overall health, happiness and a sense of personal accomplishment. However, surfing also provides physical exercise while giving patients the benefits of hydrotherapy. Because of surfing’s combination of advantages, many children and adults now don’t simply live to surf: they surf to live.

1. Polytrauma

Many wounded U.S. service veterans face harsh realities. After sustaining life-threatening injuries and upon returning home, they must begin rehabilitation. Often, veterans face what is known as “polytrauma,” or suffering from multiple physical and mental impairments from combat wounds. These injuries often affect multiple organ systems in the body and, in addition, the experience in combat can cause anxiety, depression and psychosocial impairment.

Most doctors prescribe multiple pain meds including morphine and oxycodone, but even this isn’t enough to resolve all the pain, particularly the “phantom pain” experienced by amputees. Surfing, however, has proved more effective than almost any medication, especially for amputees. It provides a bundle of benefits, including balance and strength training, hydrotherapy and mental therapy.

In 2007, the Naval Medical Center San Diego began “Surf Clinic,” its surf therapy program in Del Mar, California. With the help of volunteers, the therapeutic surf clinic takes about 30 injured service members surfing every Thursday. The clinic has been wildly successful, particularly for those with bilateral transfemoral amputations. The balance training offered to those without legs traditionally involves a balance platform. While this training helps initially, patients often find its benefits plateau as they master the machine. Surfing provides an ever-changing balance platform that allows riders with prosthetic legs to continue to challenge and push themselves during every surf session.

The surf clinic also offers a place for mentorship between experienced veteran surfers and newcomers. These relationships can be meaningful and immensely helpful for service members adapting to a different body. Furthermore, time in the water is an escape from the problems on land. It is freedom.

Check out this video of the Surf Clinic in action.

2. Cystic Fibrosis

Kalani Robb teaches, through the Mauli Ola Foundation, a young boy afflicted by cystic fibrosis how to surf. Image: screenshot, Mauli Ola Foundation

Kalani Robb teaches, through the Mauli Ola Foundation, a young boy afflicted by cystic fibrosis how to surf. Image: screenshot, Mauli Ola Foundation

Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder that heavily effects the respiratory and digestive system. Those born with Cystic Fibrosis produce extremely thick mucus in their lungs. The mucus causes drastic coughing and difficulty breathing, and it can clog the lungs and cause life-threatening infections. People diagnosed with cystic fibrosis face frequent hospitalization due to these lung problems.

Researchers in Australia found that the lungs of surfers with cystic fibrosis were much healthier than the lungs of patients who did not surf. They discovered that the saltwater mist of the ocean helps rehydrate airway surfaces, which in turn lubricates the lungs. This makes it much easier for those dealing with cystic fibrosis to clear their air passages and break up mucus. In observing the relationship between surfing and healthy lungs, researchers developed a hypertonic saline solution that seeks to provide the benefits of surfing to those who don’t have access to the ocean. Researchers have found that patients who either surf or receive saline solution treatment have half as many lung exacerbations as those patients who do not.

However, surfing offers the unique benefit of combining saline mist and physical exercise into one natural treatment. Combining the two together most efficiently breaks up mucus in the lungs. In 2007, the Maui Ola Foundation was started by a group of surfers hoping to touch the lives of children living with cystic fibrosis. The organization plans Surf Experience Days where volunteers teach affected children how to surf. The foundation hopes that by teaching and promoting surfing as a treatment for cystic fibrosis, more kids can enjoy “a healthier and more fulfilling life filled with fun activities.”

For more on the Maui Ola Foundation visit http://mauliola.org/

3. Autism

Surfers healing Photo: screenshot, Surfers Healing

Surfers healing during a SH surf camp. Photo: screenshot, Surfers Healing

Autism is a genetically inherited condition that has no known cause or cure. While difficult to understand and varying in degrees of severity, according to www.autismspeaks.org, autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, and it affects about 1 in 88 children. Children affected by autism frequently experience sensory overload as well as obsessive-compulsive routines that are difficult to break.

Izzy Paskowitz, son of legendary vagabond surfer and doctor Doc Paskowitz, was one of the first to explore surfing as a treatment for autism. When his son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism at age two, Izzy and his wife Danielle spent years seeking effective treatment. However, they discovered nothing worked as well as something that was already an integral part of their family: the ocean. Surfing provided Isaiah relief from his symptoms that no medicine or therapy could offer. Time in the water forced him to abandon OCD routines, and the ocean offered a calming remedy from sensory overload. The couple soon started a non-profit organization, Surfers Healing, to provide surf camps for other autistic children.

Operating since 2000, Surfers Healing puts on day camps across the country, and it gives over 3,000 kids a year the opportunity to get in the water and learn to surf. These camps offer children the relief and freedom from the stress they face on land.

For more information about autism, surfing, and Surfers Healing visit http://www.surfershealing.org/

4. Depression and Mood

Kassia Meador, making the fans happy. Photo: ASP

Kassia Meador, making the fans happy. Photo: ASP

This may not come as a surprise to anyone who surfs, but scientists in the UK are researching links between surfing and mood. In October of 2010, Britain’s National Health Services (NHS) operated a pilot program in Cornwall. The program observed 22 participants dealing with mental issues from schizophrenia to psychosis from ages 12 to 23. Participants spent six weeks on the coast learning how to surf under the tutelage of coaches. In recording the moods of participants, researchers found that at participants decreased in negative feelings and an increase of positive ones just in the time of 30 minutes of riding waves.

Similarly, doctoral student from the University of Iowa, Ryan Pittsinger, studied the link between surfing and mental health, but he also compared the effects of surfing with other sports. While it is well known that any kind of athletic activity causes the release of endorphins, which cause positive emotions, surfing, more than any other activity, causes feelings of tranquility and serenity. It leaves participants with a sense of accomplishment and a boosted self-esteem. These lasting effects also make surfing helpful in overcoming drug addiction. Many rehab centers, particularly in California, have integrated surfing into their programs with great success.

For more information about depression surf therapy, check this out.

5. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The United States Marine Corp has already incorporated surf therapy into effective treatment of PTSD. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation brings both therapists and surf instructors to Camp Pendleton military base in California for 2-3 week cycles. While the PTSD treatment protocol involves other stress reducing activities, surf therapy provides fun and camaraderie for all the participants.

Experts differ on what they believe the most significant benefit of surf therapy for PTSD. Occupational therapist, Carly Rogers, who developed the Jimmy Miller program, based it around Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow theory.” The theory asserts that once a person can get “in the zone,” a positive, focused state of being, for one activity, a person can feel fulfilled and happy. Surfing allows those struggling with PTSD to get in their zone, and this can flow into all areas of their life. Others argue that the body movement spurred by surfing causes a shift in the metabolic processes of the brain. This changes brain chemistry, translating into healing and relief from PTSD. Another answer could be that surfing is so physically taxing it allows those with PTSD to sleep soundly, and the focus required from surfing distracts their thoughts from disturbing memories. Regardless of the cause, the US Marine Corp in conjunction with the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation has had great success with surf therapy.

Check out the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation here.

Photo: CI Surfboards

Photo: CI Surfboards

Honorable Mention: Surfing for paraplegics and quadriplegics through the Life Rolls On Foundation. Surfer Jesse Billauer started the foundation in 2002 after he sustained a life-altering spinal cord injury. The organization helps those suffering from spinal cord injuries get back into surfing again. While surfing does not provide medical treatment for their injuries, it’s a great organization that inspires those suffering from paraplegia and quadriplegia to continue to do what they love.

For more information visit: www.liferollson.org



  • Chuck Allison

    This just became an assignment for my anatomy/physiology class! Nicely written, thanks…….

    • Chuck Allison

      17excellent essays arrived this morning! Good job guys……..

  • Ben

    Ms. Pitz, on the topic of surfing and mood functioning (as well as anxiety and coping responses to stress), I have the published the first peer-reviewed scientific research:

    Levin, B., Taylor, J. 2011. Depression, Anxiety, and Coping in Surfers. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 5, 148-165.

    This article is also linked to my Inertia contributor profile, under Ben Levin. It can also be found on any major psychology research database, e.g. Psychinfo. Feel free to check it out, or drop an email at the address listed in my profile if you have any questions or comments.

    • 1Elaine Burridge

      Hi Ben,
      I am planning to write a dissertation for my BSc in Occupational Therapy on the effect of surfing on well-being. I have found your publication and look forward to reading it!
      Are you now involved in using surfing as a therapeutic medium following your PHd?
      Elaine

      • Ben

        Hello Elaine,
        No, at present I work in forensics, primarily in an assessment capacity. That said, I am happy to answer any questions about my research. Good luck!

        • 1Elaine Burridge

          Hi Ben, I can only seem to get a preview of your PHD report online. Do you have a link to the full document? Thank you in advance!

      • Sydney Hensler

        Hi Elaine,

        I would love to collaborate with you or at least talk with you. I’m currently earning my MS in Counseling Psychology and Expressive Art Therapy but have been a surf instructor for the past 13 years. My ultimate goal is to develop integrative treatment interventions that utilize the power of non-verbal healing for mental health – surfing and art! I know more research is being done on the efficacy of surf therapy but I’d like to add to it as well and encourage further development!

        -Sydney

        • 1Elaine Burridge

          Hi Sydney,
          Are you UK based? I am in the North of England. You can get me on Elaine.burridge@northumbria.ac.uk

        • exApsych

          Hi Sydney,

          I am completing an MSc in sport and exercise psychology and aim to carry out my project on the psychological effects of surfing. I am also in awe of the work of art therapists so your aim sounds fantastic. It would be great to talk with you further. My email is exapsych@gmail.com. I hope to hear from you!

          – Alex

  • Gary Young

    It would be remiss of me not to put a link up to The Wave Project, great people doing great things with surfing in the UK and now Europe http://www.waveproject.co.uk/

  • surfaboy

    Does surfing really reduce stress, relax us, and bring us toward nirvana? This is a myth, in my opinion. For many of us, surfing causes stress! It brings out the worst in us: heightening instincts of primal territorialism, its a time and space that we quickly become competitive, anxious, jealous, insecure, emasculated, angry (at kids, girls, old people). Yet we keep going to those spots that digress us into these awful realms.

    We are in an unhealthy relationship with the ocean. What we need is to re-assess our love affair with the waves. Stop distracting ourselves with the ills that have ruined our relationship–competitiveness, alpha aspirations of dominance, and even the quest for the perfect wave. We need contentment, unconditional wave love. Surf the peak less surfed, stop chasing swells, and enjoy what the ocean gives you on any given session. Say hi to other surfers, and avoid the measuring game with all the other insecure donkeys!

    • Surfaboy, some good points you bring up. I think you hit it right on the money with this statement: “We need contentment, unconditional wave love. Surf the peak less surfed,
      stop chasing swells, and enjoy what the ocean gives you on any given
      session”.

      Growing up a Texas surfer, I had to learn wave contentment early on 🙂

    • Bobb Lawrence

      old surfer from the 60’s has to say yea and nay. depends. but i did have a name for the agro growlers who were SURF NAZI’s and act like it it THIER wave. the Brits say buzz off I believe- please do any Nazis out there1

    • Zensurf

      Walker, I think you are right in many aspects. The real problem occurs in small waves I hardly remember people discussing when it is pumping. Unfortunately scarcity brings out the worst in human beings. I used to have a real issue with the points you brought up and lost my interest in surfing for a little while. That was until I changed from shortboard to longboard 3 years ago. I now just dont care how good it is, any size will work, if crowded I move away from the peak, if too good to move away from the peak I just sit far out. I havent discovered yet why but longboarders tend to say hi to each other. It is far less competitive and even party waves are fun. As the master Rob Machado would say: “foam is your friend”

  • Great! summary and amazing progress in the work/research to quantify the cognitive and physical benefits of healthy waterways. I’d just add that this theme does extend to all waterways and all sports/recreational interaction with those waters. Kayak fishing on a lake, open water swimming, chilling at a hot spring…

    Bottom line, more #BlueMind is good for us.

    If you bring an aggressive, possessive, amped up attitude to the water not only might you miss out on many of the cognitive benefits, you’ll rob others of them too as @surfaboy points out below.

    This conversation will get more and more interesting as clinical/field research continues and folks like @Ben continue to publish results.

  • SurfingSavedMyLife

    Hi Taylor – thanks, enjoyed your article! Two things: a question and a shout-out.

    Question: did you come across anything on surfing and MS? I read an article once by a guy with MS who said it helped him manage his condition…and now I can’t find the article anywhere(!?!).

    Shout-out / FYI: the Aussie version of Life Rolls On is the Disabled Surfers Association of Australia (http://disabledsurfers.org) – different continent, same idea: share the stoke!

  • Eugenio Volpe

    Good article. I find that surfing relieves my stress but also sometimes brings out the worst in me-my territorial, egocentric, competitive self. Either way, I need it, good and bad. My eBook The Message deals with PTSD and a soldier’s return home. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MHT0IOU

  • Elianna

    Ms. Pitz:

    Thank you for crafting a well-written piece on a very pertinent topic. As a graduate nursing student rotating on a TBI/SCI unit, it is clear that organizations such as Wounded Warriors and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation (as well as countless others) facilitate opportunities for individuals to grow into their healthy best after a life-altering event/injury.

    Thank you for shedding light on ways we can all sustain a healthy lifestyle.

    Elianna

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