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Why paddle-boarding can improve your well being.

Mental well being and mindfulness are everywhere at the moment. Wherever you look there’s another documentary, blog, or social media post telling you to look after yourself. They provide many tips and tricks, and a particularly popular one tells people to get in the sea. But what’s the point? Why is this any better than meditating or colouring in? The answer lies in the numerous layers of benefit that come from the setting, physical activity, and mental engagement involved in water-based activity.

Many of us will appreciate the calming effect of a dip in the ocean or a walk along the coast – but have you ever considered why this makes you feel good? Wallace J. Nicholls’s book Blue Mind, tells us our brain is 75% water so when you see, hear, or feel water your body feels a connection to the setting. He explains that being in close proximity to water triggers an influx of ‘happy’ hormones including dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, and decreases cortisol, known as the stress hormone. A  BlueHealth study showed that people living closer to the coast are happier with their mental health than those from urban areas. Further research is being undertaken by Exeter University to find out more about the link between improved mental well being and natural aquatic spaces, such as lakes, rivers and canals. The connection between health and well being and aquatic settings are still in the early stages of being understood – but they’ve been used in medical treatment for hundreds of years. In the 16th century it was believed that taking a dip in the cold water stimulated the body, and therefore healed many illnesses from heatstroke to cancer. Although these precise methods are a bit dated, and wouldn’t necessarily be recommended today, Wim Hof has certainly proved that when the correct technique is applied to cold water swimming, there are impressive health benefits to be gained. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that being by the sea is not only calming, but directly has a positive physical impact on your biology. 

When you team a water-based setting with exercise you gain further benefit. It’s well known that exercise increases the body’s production of endorphins, which make you feel more positive and reduce your perception of pain. But there’s one final element we can incorporate to increase wellbeing benefits.

Flow psychology is described as ‘the secret to happiness’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term. This is the idea that being totally immersed in an activity means you’re unable to focus your attention on anything else. The activity should push you outside your comfort zone, because if something is too easy you won’t need to fully focus. Within this you need clear steps to feel a sense of flow. There should also be no agony over failure, as enjoyment is in the process, rather than trying to be the best. You have to do something purely for the sake of doing it – there should be no deadlines, no prizes, and no self-conscious thought.

Put water, exercise and flow psychology together and paddle-boarding becomes a one-size-fits-all well being wonder. Whether you’re a complete beginner or a total pro, paddle-boarding is an activity you can do purely for the sake of it. Unlike surfing, which has also been linked to health and wellbeing, there doesn’t need to be a final goal. Even the most relaxed surfing requires catching a wave, which is great fun, but it can be disheartening if you don’t succeed. Paddle-boarding requires simple steps: learn to balance on your knees, learn to balance on your feet, learn to paddle, learn to steer, continuously paddle, notice the sound of the water, feel the glide of the moving board – all of these actions require complete focus. And if you wobble a bit? Falling off is always a good giggle, in the water it doesn’t hurt, and you can always have a little break and a swim –so there’s no agony over failure. Like your wandering mind in meditation, that wavering focus can always be brought back to the present. With paddle-boarding, you just hop back on the board. For someone with more experience, the benefit is still accessible. Try paddling faster, slower, backwards, or lying down. You can focus on the sounds of the water, the feel of the water moving underneath your feet, the wind or sun on your body. The repetitive paddling means your mind is always focused on your body’s balance and movement which, as Csikszentmihalyi explains, immediately limits how much your mind can wander. It literally becomes difficult to think about work, shopping-lists, and credit card bills, and easier to become aware of yourself, how you feel, and your own well being.

So, if you want to improve your mental and physical well being, get on a paddle board. You’ll feel great.

Written by: Craig Fearn

MEd, BSc Hons, PGCE, QTLS, EMCC (Professional) ABMPP, ACS

CEO Business Mental Wellbeing
Principal Practitioner Association of Business Psychology
Senior Member European Mentoring and Coaching Council
Senior Member of the Association for Coaching

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