We all surf for different reasons – for health and fitness, adventure, experience, or just to be out in the ocean. Whatever our motivation, every surfer knows the feeling of surf stoke.
But while we’re all familiar with the inherent physical, physiological and sub-conscious benefits of our sport, recently published research shows that people feeling “surf stoked” are, in fact, enjoying a chemical cocktail triggered by the charged ions found in the atmosphere around turbulent water.
While surfing, we experience elevated levels of Adrenalin and Dopamine. Adrenaline raises your heart rate and increases your reaction time (the fight or flight reflex), while Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter triggered in your body when you are doing something you like. “Adrenaline junkies” – such as big wave surfers – get used to higher levels of these chemicals, as demonstrated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break (see video).
While this adrenalin rush may give us an edge in the water the effects subside quickly once ashore, while surf-stoke remains long after we’re back on the beach. Research suggests these persistent effects of surf euphoria may be attributed to an unlikely candidate: sea spray.
The turbulence created by breaking waves alters the physical structure of the air and water, breaking apart water and air molecules and releasing charged ions* into the atmosphere. On their eternal quest for perfect waves surfers inevitably encounter this altered atmospheric state.
Some scientists are convinced this abundance of negative ions has a positive effect on mood by triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin – the “happy hormones” – and increasing blood flow and oxygen circulation through our bodies.
Similar studies show other environments with negatively charged atmospheric conditions, such as around waterfalls and on snowy mountains, produce similar effects. Maybe if your shower pressure is really good you could re-create the environment and get shower-stoked, using the same principle of turbulent water!
A study of 107 surfers in California investigated the mental health benefits of surfing by asking surfers to describe how they felt before and after a surf. Surfers reported feeling calmer and more tranquil afterwards. Ryan Pittsinger, the researcher behind the study, put the results down to solitude – “It’s just you…it allows you to clear your head.”
Perhaps the results would have differed on a busy day at Snapper…
Organizations around the world have tapped into this surfing “zen” to treat afflictions such as depression, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder (a type of winter depression) and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation in California is using a program known as Ocean Therapy to teach people with combat-related post-traumatic stress to apply skills learned from surfing – including trust and confidence – to their everyday lives.
A documentary released earlier in the year, Somewhere near Tapachula, told the story of Mission Mexico, an organization bringing happiness back into the lives of orphaned kids in Mexico through surfing. Building confidence, self-esteem and providing an escape from their previous lives gave the children new hope to follow their dreams and reach an exciting future. The success of the program showed surfing therapy to be more effective than even the mission workers had hoped.
As the old saying goes “Only a surfer knows the feeling” – and as a surfer you don’t need scientific studies to know that surfing more is good for your health. Nonetheless, this new research provokes appreciation for environmental health and personal health.
And if the beach is too far and you need a quick “up,” try the shower.
*Ion – an atom or group of atoms with a net electric charge. Scientists reckon the beneficial ions include Sodium and Chloride (from Sodium Chloride, commonly known as sea salt) and other trace elements such as Magnesium.