At one with the water: Why does paddleboarding have such a positive impact on mental health?

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From sourdough bread-making to living-room yoga, lockdown saw many people taking up new hobbies to stave off boredom and maintain a healthy mind. 

As summer came and some restrictions were eased, the country found a new appreciation for outdoor spaces and natural landscapes that provided a relaxing escape from COVID-related chaos. Unable to meet up with friends indoors or go to pubs and restaurants, outdoor fun, whether a long walk or a drink in the park, became a major part of people’s lives.

With people looking for outdoor activities compatible with social distancing guidelines, one aquatic hobby took off more than any other: stand up paddleboarding (SUP). Head down to Brighton seafront on a still, sunny evening, and you’ll struggle to count all the silhouettes serenely cruising the coastline, paddle in hand.

It’s easy to see the appeal; it’s relatively easy to learn, suitable for all ages and fitness levels, and does not require high surf. Modern SUP dates back to the 1950s and 60s, when surfing teachers in Hawaii began to use the technique of standing up and paddling on their surfboards while teaching visiting tourists. 

During this COVID summer, suppliers in the UK have struggled to keep up with soaring demand for SUPs. At the end of June, SUP Inflatables, one of Britain’s largest online paddleboard retailers, reported that they were almost completely out of stock after a 300% increase in sales.  

Paddleboarding certainly looks like a relaxing activity, and interestingly, scientific research is now emerging that links paddleboarding directly to improved mental health and wellbeing. A study conducted by BioMedCentral (BMC) found that participants experienced “significant improvements” in psychological health after completing three one-hour SUP sessions a week for six weeks. 

The link between regular exercise, time spent outdoors and a healthy mind is well documented, but what is it about paddleboarding in particular that might account for its significant mental health benefits?

In a recent interview with Metro, Annabel Anderson, who held the position of World #1 SUP from 2012-2017, spoke about the positive effect on wellbeing the sport can have:

“There’s just something about being on water that brings a sense of calm from the chaos of our current world.

“It’s like hitting the reset button to be able to face the unknown and uncertainty of what is going on around us.”

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But what is that “something about being on the water” that Annabel mentions? Most of us will know intuitively what she means – that specific and unique calm you feel when standing in front of the sea, listening to the waves, taking in the endless expanse of water with every breath and feeling your body relax almost instantaneously. 

Researchers at BlueHealth, a programme researching the health and wellbeing benefits of blue space across 18 (mostly European) countries put that sense of calm down to a few things, including less polluted air and more sunlight. Speaking to the Guardian, BlueHealth’s Dr Matthew White said that the sea’s positive impact on mental health is primarily due to the ebb and flow of the tides. He points out that rumination – focusing on negative thoughts about one’s distress – is a significant factor in depression:

“What we find is that spending time walking on the beach, there’s a transition towards thinking outwards towards the environment, thinking about those patterns – putting your life in perspective, if you like.”

When you are sailing, surfing or paddleboarding, White continues, “you’re really in tune with natural forces there – you have to understand the motion of the wind, the movement of the water.”

Bea, a 20 year old student at Sussex University who bought a paddleboard at the start of lockdown, has definitely experienced the sensations White describes:

“It’s so peaceful being on the water. If I’m not feeling great, which was the case sometimes during lockdown, going out on my paddleboard always improves my mood, I think because it makes me feel more connected to my surroundings and more aware, taking everything in and just being present in the moment.”

Paddleboarding is particularly mindful, Bea says, because “you can’t think about anything else when you’re doing it”:

“You have to concentrate and be aware of your body and your movements. It’s immersive – paddling and controlling the board takes you away from your worries for a bit.”  

It’s interesting that Bea mentions control. So much of what’s been going on recently has been completely out of our control, and that’s been very hard to deal with. Perhaps part of paddleboarding’s calming effect is that it is entirely up to you to decide where you want to go when you’re on the water, how fast and for how long. In other words, the paddleboard is completely in your control, barring the effect of the tide. 

“I feel like I’ve found a new hobby for life,” Bea says. “It makes me feel grounded, and reminds me to slow down and take in what’s around me. I would never had had the chance to do it so much in a normal year!”

Like many of us, Bea has experienced the strange dual nature of COVID’s impact on our lives – it has been an extraordinarily difficult time, but one glimmer of positivity is that it has given people the chance to do things that they otherwise would never have had time to do. Often, these have been simple, outdoor activities that are proving to have a big impact on people’s wellbeing. I’m off to buy a paddleboard…

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