Why is surfing so good for us? Neuroscientist and writer offer clues

Maybe it’s just moments like this that make us happy? Photo: Paz Arando//Unsplash

Mystical, cutesy explanations and platitudes abound to describe the transcendental health benefits of surfing. But mundane spirituality aside, what does surfing offer that pumping iron or rolling on a treadmill can’t? I took a closer look at the question and even asked a neuroscientist to see if the research might offer any clues.

Is it exposure to the elements instead of sterile sweat chambers lit by fluorescent tubes, laced with body sprays and rusty iron? Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush that only happens occasionally in the gym when you try to bench yourself too much? Or if the steroid-loaded Mongoloid next to you doesn’t like the way you look at him? There are certainly close contacts with death when running off-road or racing down the edge of a cliff on a mountain bike.

Or is it the satisfaction of improvised decision-making? Something you can find in surfing, skateboarding, jazz music, or a blank canvas, but only vaguely offered by weightlifting, running, biking, or any activity with unshakable rules.

Anyone who has ever pumped up their heart rate or surfed knows that the mental health benefits of physical activity are numerous. However, the stimulation we feel in pursuing activities with few or no limits could be mediated by something called synaptic plasticity, explains Santi Solé Domenech, a Weill Cornell Medical College Research Associate and Google Scholar specialized in biochemistry and neurosciences.

A synapse, neurologically speaking, connects neurons in the brain to those in the rest of the body, including sensory organs that register touch and pain. Over time, and through use and disuse, the power of the synapses changes, strengthens or weakens, which, in theory, plays on our basic memory and learning abilities.

In intense states of emotion, pain, or general tension, synapses fire. While there may be similar activities that have similar effects, how many might generate the same responses that we have to swing in a foamy sea, dressed like shark bait, and try to hold a position in order to catch a wave in the right place – while doing our best not to end up like mincemeat on a nearly dry reef below, or barnacle-encrusted rocks ashore?

Then there are the moments when it all comes together. When you’re finally where you want to be, and the wave is a blank canvas, a 12-tone scale with every height in between, and when friction and gravity – and maybe a bit of wind or a section crowded interior – are the only things really holding you back.

These are not the sensations that most of us experience amid, say, repetitive transfer of pieces of iron from one position to another, or placing one foot in front of the other on a treadmill or a nondescript gravel path winding through a city park. Do not devalue any of these sports or exercises; they all have different merits and offer different forms of respite to each.

Consider, on what is perhaps the opposite end of the surfing spectrum for many people, sit still and try to keep your eyelids open for a math lesson rather than taking on a three-headed slab with nothing else only a skinny foot or so water between you, imminent death or facial reconfiguration. It’s the pure stuff of memory that only results from being spat out of a perfectly lifted upright barrel.

Mountain biking and road biking are certainly exciting and captivating in almost every way. But there’s something about being on terra firma, our natural element, however cold and harsh it may be. In short, we are clearly and simply out of our element the second we are afloat.

Sure, the mammal or dive reflex kicks in and more or less prevents us from drowning (immediately, at least), but deep down and instinctively we all know we’re fighting for every breath and every face. wide open in an environment. totally not ours, an existential enigma and a chance for a different perspective.

Whether it’s a three-wave hold or the ten-second drag we’ll dream of through our last breath of air in our earthly goods, we invariably seek and find relief from the doldrums day after day the life on land. This is something that no weight room, no pre-worn path, and no four-walled institution will ever be able to offer us.