AMU Editor's Pick Lifestyle Military Well Being

The Benefits of Surfing for Overcoming PTSD and Other Health Problems

By Dr. Jessica Sapp
Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences at American Public University

Water is the foundation of life and is essential to our health. Although some organizations use ocean therapy or surf therapy programs to improve our health, we don’t often think of water as being therapeutic for our mental health.

Surf Therapy for PTSD Sufferers

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects about 30% of military veterans compared to just 7% of the general population. There are various treatments but surfing offers a unique, wholesome approach. According to Lt. Col. Greg Martin, “There’s nothing like surfing to touch the mind, the body and the spirit all at the same time.”

Surfing creates a mental diversion from life’s stresses. Surfing demands focus.

Surfing takes total concentration because you deal with so many elements: waves, wind, weather, tides, paddling and balance. This need to concentrate keeps your mind on surfing and off everything else.

Operation Surf, which aired on ESPN, features remarkable stories of service personnel who have overcome PTSD. A study by Dr. Russell Crawford, “The Impact of Ocean Therapy on Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” found improvement of PTSD symptoms, depression and self-efficacy. Other studies have shown similar mental health improvements.

Surfing for Physical Health

Surfing is also a full-body workout. Paddling works the muscles in the shoulders, arms and torso. The surfing popup, essentially an explosive pushup, uses the entire body in a movement similar to a burpee — dropping down on all fours, rising quickly and stretching your arms over your head. The difference is that in a surfing popup, you are twisting to plant your feet perpendicular to your surfboard.

When you are standing on a surfboard, you use your lower body and core for balance and maneuvering on the wave. Surfing is also great cardiorespiratory exercise.

In addition to strength and conditioning, surfing improves sleep because the sport requires a lot of physical exertion. Add to that the effects of sun and surf and the complete exhaustion after a surfing session promotes better sleep.

Adaptive Surfing Has Become a Global Activity

Quadriplegics, amputees and people with developmental conditions have become avid surfers. Adaptive surfing has grown into a global endeavor for all levels from amateurs to pros. The International Surfing Association hosts the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship each year.

American professional surfer and motivational speaker Bethany Hamilton lost an arm in a shark attack when she was 13 years old. Her motto is, “I don’t need easy. I just need possible!” Bethany was the inspiration for the film, “Soul Surfer.”

Becoming One with the Ocean But Know Your Limits

The ocean can create a serenity and energy that are calming and peaceful. Surfing can also be spiritual because you are immersed in the ocean’s tranquility as you enjoy the sea spray and ocean breezes.

Surfing is a lot of fun, but health and safety must be priorities. Protect your skin by using sunscreen and a rashguard or SPF shirt to prevent sunburn. Take breaks to rest and drink water to stay hydrated.

Above all, know your limits. When you begin surfing, you will experience “spaghetti arms” when you paddle until you build endurance. So set limits.

If I can’t paddle out to a surf break in 30 to 45 minutes, then I know the waves are too large for me to surf safely. I want to ensure that I have the strength and endurance in case I must swim unexpectedly.

Surfing Programs and Other Mental Health Organizations Can Provide Aid

Several organizations offer surfing camps for active military, veterans, special needs, autism and limited mobility surfers. Many specialized surfing camps are free to participants.

In addition, organizations such as Amazing Surf Adventures (ASA), Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation and Warrior Surf Foundation have programs designed to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of service personnel and veterans.

If you are experiencing emotional distress and need confidential emotional support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year at 1-800-273-8255 or chat online. If you are a veteran, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255.

About the Author

Dr. Jessica Sapp is an associate professor within the School of Health Sciences at APUS. She has over 12 years of experience in public health, working in various environments including government, hospitals, health insurance, community, international, corporate and academia. Jessica earned her D.P.H. in Health Policy and Management at Georgia Southern University and a M.P.H. in Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina. She also has a B.S. in Health Science Education from the University of Florida.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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