The Science of Surfing: Why a Surf Holiday Will Make You Better At Your Job
A 1987 article in Surfer Magazine about the science of surfing entitled “Science of Stoke”(1) famously quotes Patagonia founder and lifelong surfer Yvon Chouinard as calling surfing ”one of those useless sports—it has no value to society.”
The same article stated that it was impossible for scientists to measure what was really going on in our brains as we surf.
In 1987 that may have been true, but today we know more. It turns out the physiological effects that surfing have on us will not only make you feel great – they’ll make you better at your job. Here’s why Chouinard was so wrong about the value of surfing.
Anyone who has ever surfed know that surfing makes you happy. It’s fun. According to the science of surfing, physiologically we can’t help but be happy in the water. Jut being in around crashing waves has a positive effect on us, since those crashing waves release charged ions into the atmosphere. These ions cause endorphins to release in your brain. To follow some Elle Woods logic: Surfing gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.
A 2014 study found that happiness makes people 12% more productive overall than their unhappy counterparts. The outlier was Google, who ranked their employees as being 37% more productive when happy. (2) Dr. Sgroi, of the same study, added:
Another study noted that “Improving happiness will in turn improve almost all measures of performance across the board – productivity, resilience, less burnout.”(3)
Even better, medical studies show that surfing prevents depression and stress (6), which are two of the biggest detriments to performance in the workplace.
Speaking of Stress
Let’s break down this stress thing for a minute. Is all stress really bad stress?
It turns out, it isn’t. Doctors define stress as being one of two types:
Type 1: Chronic Stress. This might include financial problems or chronic worry about a sick loved one. This type of stress has all kinds of negative effects on your well being.
Type 2: Exciting Stress. Stress that is “Immediate, identifiable and resolvable” is considered exciting stress. (4) Voluntary stress – Like the feeling you get before dropping in on a big wave – can be good for you.
When we experience type two stress, our brains ask for total focus, and we are snapped out of any bad stress and into the present moment.
Physiologically, this “exciting” stress causes our blood flow to increase, along with our heart rate and rate of breathing. This triggers your body to release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine – the recipe for experiencing euphoria. Along with euphoria, – also know as runner’s high – you’ll get heightened senses and a hyperactive metabolism that rapidly breaks down stored sugars and fats.
That’s why post surf, surfers feel so chilled out. If you surf before work, your brains will be clearer, cortisol production lower and you’ll be more equipped to handle difficult or otherwise stressful situations when you get to the office.
It’s Basically Meditation
That 1987 Surfer Mag article that claimed it was impossible to know what happened to us when we surf, suggested that surfers might experience “dissociative states” similar to those achieved by lifelong meditation practitioners.
Today, we know this to be true. Meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting on a braided cushion with your eyes closed anymore. Surfing has the exact same effect on our mind-body experience.
The post-adrenaline state moves blood flow from your brain to muscles, quieting that never-ending monologue in your head. Alpha wave activity is generated in the brain, signaling a clearing of unwanted thoughts, and a profound relaxed state. This is exactly what happens to advanced meditators.
Chopra Institute says meditation aids creativity, inspiration, and mental clarity. It can improve relationships with others, which in turn positively impacts teamwork. Meditation helps cure insomnia, which leads to an increase in innovation. It helps to alleviate anxiety, which can make it easier to work on projects that require patience or collaboration, and it leads to positive thoughts that improve drive in pursing your passions.
Surfing is one of the most challenging full body exercises you can get. Beyond being an intense cardiovascular exercise, Surfing works the upper body (while paddling), the lower body (while riding the wave) and the core (balance), making it a full body press. De Leede explains surfing’s workout:
According to Harvard Medical School, exercise improves both memory and thinking. Directly, exercise stimulates the chemicals in the brain that grow new blood vessels and help brain cell survive. Medical studies also show surfing prevents depression/stress.6 Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep and reduces stress and anxiety – the four areas that contribute to cognitive performance. (5) The majority of today’s successful people rate exercise as essential to their personal productivity.
Have you ever sat there, floating on your board, and thought about how small you are compared to the grandeur of the world? Have you marveling at a rainbow as it appears across the sky when the rain clears over your favorite break, or just simply absorbing the beauty of the natural scenery surrounding you and felt happy to be alive?
That’s called ‘experiencing awe,’ and physiologically, it’s making you a better person. While what’s awe-inspiring is different for each of us, awe helps relieve stress by quieting the frontal lobes, generating deep relaxation, syncing the left and right brains and increasing alpha and theta brain wave activity.
Both adrenaline rushes and awe have the same positive physiological effects on the brain and body, even though they’re two different ways of getting there. In surfing, you can experience them both.
Which is essential, as stressed-out adults need as much adrenaline and awe as they can get to reset their stress riddled brains. Spend your next holiday surfing, and you’ll be set up to be a productive team members when you get back to work.