The healing power of surfing

Getting out on a surf board has many health benefits and it is safer than you might think


Three thousand miles away a ripple forms off the east coast of the United States. By the time it slams into Ireland’s west coast, it has become a cliff-sized wave. But just before it crashes ashore, a figure flits across the wave’s fraying edge before hurtling through its narrowing tunnel of spray and collapsing water. Welcome to the world of surfing.

In 1966 the grandfather of Irish surfing Kevin Cavey founded the first surfing club here. By 1970, when the Irish Surfing Association was founded, there were some 400 surfers. Today, according to Cavey there are about 20,000. “With more surfers in Ireland than ever before, the surf industry is booming.”

Not that I contribute to it. I’ve been dumped by a girlfriend, but never by a wave. I prefer long-distance running, but although surfers and runners share the endorphin rush and their respective sports’ addictive nature, a greater variety of fitness demands are made of surfers compared to runners.

For example, paddling, swimming, balancing, breath-holding and hauling surfboards from the sea not only require cardiorespiratory fitness but muscular endurance, anaerobic power and upper-body strength.

Physical benefits

It’s clear that surfing confers physical benefits. For example, the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published the results of an American study into the heart rate (HR) responses of 28 high school students who undertook an eight-week programme of surfing physical education (PE).

The benefits of surfing are not reserved only for the able-bodied

It concluded that “high school students participating in surf PE attained HRs and durations that are consistent with recommendations [for] cardiovascular fitness and health”.

However, the benefits of surfing are not reserved only for the able-bodied. In 2015 researchers from the University of Rhode Island reported on how children with disabilities responded to a tailored programme of surfing-centred exercise that included paddling in the water; balancing on their board; and progressing to lying, kneeling and standing.

The authors stated: “These results showed that there is an overall improvement in upper-body strength and cardiorespiratory endurance in these participants.”

In 2010 in Cornwall the UK National Health Service-funded Wave Project ( began. Its initial aim was that volunteers would provide one-to-one surfing lessons for youngsters with mental health problems, promoting enjoyment of outdoor exercise and boosting self-confidence.

In 2015, in a study published in the January 2015 issue of Community Practitioner, Cath Godfrey and colleagues reported on a six-week Wave Project course taken by 84 vulnerable individuals aged between 8 and 21 years: “One year later, 70 per cent of clients regularly attend a surf club and many have become trained as session volunteers. Parents and referrers noticed an increase in positive attitude and better communication, as well as improved self-management and behaviour at both home and school.”

Some risk

However, skimming across a fast-moving wave on a surf board is not without some risk. But while landlubbers like me assume that everyone on a surfboard is shark bait, the facts offer a different perspective, especially for the estimated 500,000 surfers cresting the waves in UK waters.

In 2015 a team from the Royal Cornwall Hospital reported in the journal Injury the results of their survey of surfing injuries around the UK. Trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, and sports and exercise medic Timothy Woodacre, who led the study, said: “We wished to analyse surfing injuries sustained solely in the UK, and found that injuries to the head, foot and ankle were the most common, typically sustained from collisions with one’s own surfboard or with the environment: rocks, the sea bed.

“Serious injuries, requiring hospital admission or surgery, were rare, with most either not requiring professional medical attention at all, or able to be managed and discharged from an Emergency Department.”

As far as head protection was concerned, Woodacre’s team stated: “Surfing helmets aim to prevent . . . serious head injuries; whilst they should be considered for injury prevention their routine use is unlikely to be warranted whilst surfing in the UK.”

An Irish study published in 2015 in the Irish Journal of Medical Science, described how a team from University Hospital Limerick investigated the prevalence of so-called “surfer’s ear” among Irish surfers. The correct name for “surfer’s ear” is exostosis.

The study’s lead author, surgeon Paul Lennon, said: “Exostoses are bony outgrowths in the ear canal that slowly grow and can eventually block the ear drums. But until they are pretty bad they don’t cause much trouble and can go unnoticed. A lot of patients can be looked after as out-patients but some do need an operation to get rid of them. Exostoses are caused by cold water and wind exposure. That’s why we see them in people who are sitting just out of the water, like surfers or kayakers, more so than in swimmers. With surfing becoming more and more popular it’s likely that exostoses will be become much more common.”

Competitive surfing

Lennon’s team examined 119 surfers aged 18 to 59 years who attended two regional surfing competitions in Ireland, and who spent at least 75 per cent of their time surfing in Irish waters.

They found that 66 per cent of the surfers examined had exostoses and 88 per cent were unaware that they had the condition. Although 89 per cent of the surfers had some knowledge of exostoses, only 37 per cent wore earplugs regularly.

How about the global prevalence of competitive surfing injuries? A 2007 American study considered surfing injuries sustained at 32 professional and amateur surfing contests around the world between 1999 and 2005. Its conclusions, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine stated: “Competitive surfing is relatively safe when compared with other sports for which comparable data are available, with a rate of 6.6 significant injuries per 1,000 hours of competition.” Compare the rate of 6.6 per 1,000 hours for surfing with professional rugby (69 per 1000 hours) or college-standard soccer (18.8 per 1000 hours).

It seems that providing some elementary safety precautions are observed, surfing is as safe as other popular sports and a good way to attain and maintain fitness.

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