The Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Health Benefits of Surfing

Bodhi Surf + Yoga / Surf + Yoga Camp Blog / The Physical, Mental, & Spiritual Health Benefits of Surfing

We may be biased, but at Bodhi Surf + Yoga we believe that surfing is one of the best activities you can do for your body, your mind, and your soul – and our guests agree:

“The physical, spiritual, and mental aspects are exactly what I need and why I keep coming back”.

It’s a sport that guides you through a whole world of mindfulness and deep connections, while at the same time giving you a killer workout. And we mean, killer.

Surfing isn’t the easiest sport to just ‘go out there’ and pick up.

There are many rules and techniques that take time to learn. But you can start to reap the health benefits of surfing from minute one in the water with your surfboard.

Let’s talk about how, by explaining the physical, mental, and spiritual health benefits of surfing.

Surfer catching a bluegreen waveThe physical health benefits of surfing

This is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of how surfing can benefit your health.

It’s definitely true that surfing involves a heck of a lot of effort and can feel like an intense full-body workout… and that’s because it kind of is.

Surfing will put your body to what feels like the ultimate test. And because of this, there are many ways in which your body can benefit physically from the sport.

Surfing improves your fitness

I’ve been catching waves now for about four months, so I’m still relatively new to surfing. But if there’s one thing that I can already attest to is that surfing is VERY beneficial for your fitness.

I can still remember how I felt after my first surf lesson here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga.

In one word? Tired. Very tired. It’s true, surfing can be difficult.

But in the days and weeks that followed I could feel my body responding positively to the new hobby.

And this is why I now absolutely love surfing. Not only was it making me feel healthier and more fit while out in the waves, but the physical health benefits of surfing have translated into my everyday life.

One of my lifelong hobbies and all-time favorite things to do is play football.

I play here in Uvita, and with the intense humidity it’s fair to say my fitness struggles sometimes on the pitch. But after a few weeks of surfing I felt like a transformed player – both in terms of my muscle strength and cardiovascular health.

This is because surfing is excellent at conditioning your body to exercise and perform better physically.

It’s like going to the gym, but instead of some hot, crowded, sweaty room you’re in nature’s beautiful playground being welcomed by the waves. What more could you ask for from a workout?

Surfer strengthening muscles by paddling out to surfSurfing strengthens muscles and burns calories

Surfing is probably the best disguised full body workout there is.

And we’re being serious, it feels like it works out every single muscle you have – muscles you didn’t even know you have.

While we can’t prove that it simultaneously works out every single one of your muscles, it one hundred-percent engages muscles from head to toe.

There are a few regions of the body in particular where the majority of our surf students, as well as myself, claim that we feel from surfing the most.

Neck muscles

This one probably surprised me the most when I started surfing.

I was expecting my legs, core, and arms to be screaming at me after my first few surf lessons, but not my neck.

It turns out, when paddling out for bluegreen waves, your neck is one of the most important parts of your paddling technique. You’ll be using your neck muscles for constantly:

  • Looking over oncoming waves
  • Looking around for other surfers and obstacles
  • Positioning yourself correctly on your surfboard for efficient paddling (i.e. chest and neck up)
  • Looking back over your shoulder at the wave that you’re paddling for

Every time you surf and exercise your neck muscles, you’ll feel yourself getting stronger there. This will in turn make your paddling technique stronger, making you a better surfer!

Arms and shoulder muscles

At Bodhi Surf + Yoga, we don’t go a week without hearing “my arms, my arms!” at least a few times from our surf students.

While surfing, your arms and shoulder muscles are engaged and being used the WHOLE time.

And we mean, literally the whole time.

Whether you’re:

  • Paddling out
  • Paddling for a wave in the white water or in the lineup
  • Popping up on your surfboard
  • Planking, turtle rolling, or duck diving to get through/under oncoming waves

Your upper body muscles will be engaged. And trust us, you’ll know it.

I personally use surfing as an excuse to skip the gym every now and again. Whether it’s actually an equivalent substitute or not – well, that’s a conversation for another day.

Core muscles

Not the biggest fan of doing sit-ups?

You don’t have to be!

Any guesses as to what you could do instead as a core workout? Yes, go surfing!

Another group of muscles that surfing strengthens are your core muscles. In your first few surfing lessons you might not feel your core as much as your arms and legs, but it’s still being worked – a lot.

Your core is a pivotal part of keeping you balanced and stable while catching a wave.

One of the techniques that we teach our students here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga is called planking. This involves getting in the plank position on your surfboard in order to allow a whitewater wave to pass through you and your board.

If you’ve ever done a plank before, you’ll already know which muscles are at the core of this exercise, pun intended.

Surfer girl using leg muscles to catch a waveLeg muscles

Your legs are another group of muscles that will be engaged throughout your entire surf session. Do you believe us about the intense-crossfit aspect of surfing yet?

Firstly, your legs are important for balance. While standing on your surfboard, whether in the whitewater or on a bluegreen wave, you’ll be engaging your legs in order to stay balanced and maintain the correct positioning.

Surfing will benefit your leg strength while turning on your surfboard as well. You’ll lean towards the direction you want to turn, using your legs to support your body while doing this.

You can prepare your muscles for surfing by following surf instructor and bodysurf retreat leader Spencer’s blog on fitness for surfers. Spencer also has a YouTube series – Supple Saturdays with Spencer which has videos on strengthening your arms and shoulder muscles, core, and mastering balance.

Surfing is beneficial for your cardiovascular fitness

Since we’ve looked at how surfing benefits the muscles throughout your body, let’s talk about how it benefits the most important muscle – your heart.

As a physical activity, surfing increases your heart rate. Your muscles need to receive more oxygen in order to allow your body to exert itself physically.

The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise 5 days a week.

I personally can’t think of anything worse than running for two and a half hours per week, which is why surfing is perfect for me!

Surfing is the perfect blend of intense physical exercise and intermittent rest, making it a great cardiovascular exercise. You’ll find yourself exerting yourself while:

  • Paddling out (this alone is an intense upper body workout)
  • Paddling for waves
  • Standing on your surfboard catching waves
  • Falling off
  • Getting back on your surfboard after you’ve fallen off

While doing these things, you’ll find your heart rate increasing. You’ll probably also feel adrenaline rushing throughout your body helping you push through.

By being physically active and bettering your heart health through surfing, your cardiovascular system will benefit with:

  • Better blood flow throughout your body
  • Healthier muscles and organs from sufficient blood flow
  • Better breathing
  • A healthier heart – putting you at less risk of problems such as heart attack

Just within their one-week retreat with us at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, many of our guests say that they can already feel some of these health benefits of surfing.

So what’re you waiting for? Get down here!

Surfing improves your flexibility

While surfing you’re putting your body in all kinds of different positions. If you think about it, these are positions that your body probably isn’t used to.

There aren’t many other sports that quite compare to surfing in this regard. Whether your surf session is 30 minutes or three hours, you’ll be:

  • Standing and balancing on your surfboard while catching a wave
  • Fighting to paddle through oncoming waves
  • Diving under waves
  • Pushed off of a few waves, for sure

To be honest, being completely thrown off a wave is probably one of the best ways of stretching your body.

Have you ever seen someone fall off their surfboard? The force of the wave forces your body into all kinds of weird positions. I remember this one wave had me doing front flips and cartwheels – under water. I didn’t even know my body could do that.

But trust me when I say I felt VERY well stretched after that. I surfed with what felt like so much freedom in my body afterwards.

The more you surf and improve your flexibility, the better a surfer you’ll become.

It’s much harder to stand on your surfboard and surf with tight/tense muscles. You don’t want to be hunched over – you want your body to be open and feel free.

Trust us – you’ll feel the difference.

You can even prepare your body for these types of movements and stretches before surfing. This isn’t a make or break, but we definitely recommend it. You can get some ideas from Spencer’s blog on six stretches for surfing.

Along with this, we’ve got you covered here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga with yoga videos on our YouTube channel perfect for stretching and opening your body!

The mental health benefits of surfing

One of the biggest things that we focus on nurturing for our surfing students here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga is mental reawakening.

At the end of the retreat, we each share something that stood out to us during the week.

More often than not, it’s the ability to ‘get out of their heads’ that our guests appreciate the most from their week of surfing. This is often quite an emotional activity!

By surfing – and even simply just being in the presence of the ocean, you’re opening yourself up to a whole range of mental health benefits.

Let’s dive into it!

Young surfer is confident and smiling in the whitewaterSurfing improves your confidence

For myself and a lot of our guests at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, confidence is something that holds us back from a lot of things – surfing included.

In fact, if you’ve never surfed before and you book a beginner surfing retreat – kudos to you! That’s already extremely brave, and you’ll see how surfing will completely transform your confidence.

How surfing can make you more confident

Our whole ethos here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga surrounding confidence, is that through surfing you can prove things to yourself.

What do we mean by this? What things? Great questions.

You might watch advanced surfers shredding it out in some pretty big waves and think to yourself “there’s no way I’ll ever be able to do that”. I thought the same thing.

It can look really difficult, and it feels that way too when you’re first starting off learning in the white water.

But being able to watch yourself gradually get better and better will work wonders for your confidence – so you have to stick with it! Even on bad days – which there will be.

As we say here in Costa Rica, “Paso a paso” – which means step by step!

Anyway, let’s get back to that question, ‘what can I prove to myself’? If you do stick with surfing even on the harder days, you’ll show yourself that you have:

  • Determination
  • Perseverance
  • Self-belief

You’ll also be able to notice yourself getting better at things that you used to struggle with. Within our surf retreats, we see our students get better at:

  • Popping up on waves
  • Reading and tracking waves out in the lineup
  • Paddling technique
  • Standing up on the surfboard

It’s amazing watching what this newfound confidence does to our students’ spirits – top five perks of working at Bodhi Surf + Yoga for sure.

What about when confidence is low?

There will be days out in the water that frustrate you – it happens to all of us.

Don’t let that stress you out.

I’ve had days where I felt like I couldn’t even do the simplest things. And yeah, it definitely does lower my confidence a bit.

Sometimes surfing is a two steps forward, one step back kind of sport.

When we have surf students going through similar scenarios and getting frustrated, co-owner, surf instructor, and surfer of 15 years Adrianne explains that if you’ve done it before, you can do it again.

For example: if someone is struggling to pop up on their board, she’ll explain that even if it was by mistake, your body has shown you before that it can be physically done. Mistake or not – your body has done it before so you can certainly do it again.

Now imagine your confidence after you push through that mental barrier you set for yourself and get it right – through the roof!

And to be honest, there’ll be some days where it just doesn’t happen. And that’s ok too! Go home, crack open a cold one and come back refreshed the next day.

Surfer smiling and stoked in whitewaterSurfing helps you be kinder to yourself

If you’ve never surfed, you can’t imagine the connection you’re able to find with yourself while on your surfboard.

For a lot of us, we’re less kind to ourselves than anyone else is – and we’re much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. What kind of sense does that make?

If only we actually knew how hard we treat ourselves sometimes.

Surfing helps you realize that. And once you make this realization, you’re filled with this appreciation, respect, and sympathy for yourself.

You want to be kinder, more forgiving to yourself, more understanding.

While surfing you’re communicating with yourself.

Sometimes I literally find myself talking to myself outloud. Not because I’m bored or lonely, but because when I’m on my board paddling through the waves – being at one with nature, it feels like I’m the only person out there. The only person in the world. It’s just me and nature.

I’m not saying stuff like “hey how ya doing”, but more along the lines of “it’s ok, just one more set” or “come on keep going, almost there”. It’s amazing how having this little bit of communication with yourself makes you feel.

Rather than just feeling like a person – nothing more nothing less – you actually feel a connection between your body and your soul – who you are.

And you begin to appreciate these things – the things that make you you. And then you fall in love with this person. It’s much harder to hurt/be rude to someone you love than someone you don’t.

This is one thing that our guests attest to very regularly, and how beneficial surfing and discovering this connection with yourself can be for your mental health:

“I gained so much confidence and skill and connection while I was there, I can’t thank them enough.”

“The yoga lessons perfectly complemented the surfing, and left me with a new found mental clarity and renewed sense of purpose.”

Surfing helps you build a community

At Bodhi Surf + Yoga, one of our favorite things about surfing is the community aspect.

You’ll see from your first few days surfing with us here in Ballena Bahia that we value our community immensely. It makes us who we are.

By taking lessons with a responsible surf school like us here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, we’re introducing you to our local surf community. These surf communities can be EXTREMELY supportive and beneficial to be a part of, especially as a beginner surfer. For starters:

  • People will be much more forgiving of your newbie mistakes
  • Others may be more lenient of mistake drop ins and poor surf etiquette
  • You’ll experience such a supportive atmosphere – there are cheers and celebrations in surfing too!
  • Better surfers may help and teach you better surfing technique

Once you’ve been introduced to our (or anyone’s) local surf community, it’s up to you to make the effort to practice respectful surf etiquette – another learning benefit of taking lessons. From this point, you’ll then be accepted and integrated into your surf community.

Smiling surfer girls talking in the lineupHow does this help you socially?

The camaraderie of surf communities is second to none. There’s nothing quite like sitting on your board in the lineup having a chat to the other surfers while awaiting the next set.

Just picture it – it’s sunset, the air is warm, the ocean clear and blue.

You’re sitting there having a laugh, talking about how gnarly each other’s waves were and giving each other pointers – poetic stuff.

This is where friends are made.

While out there in the water, you forget about the day that you’ve had – whether great or awful. Your head is clear and you’re able to appreciate the ocean and the people out there with you.

This allows you to really create bonds and relationships with your new surf friends.

As you become more of a local at your surf spots, you’re sure to be invited out for a few sunset beers every now and again!

Surfing helps you overcome fears

One of the most common things we hear here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga is “I’m scared of the ocean”.

In fact, one of the biggest reasons that some people come to us is because they want to get over their fear of the ocean – which is not a bad idea. It’s a great one in fact.

By surfing, you’re confronting this fear – you’re facing the big deep blue ocean in all its glory and mystery.

This is the first step to overcoming your fear of the ocean – just facing it. What happens next is magical.

You’re able to feel and experience Mother Ocean’s welcoming waves and the connection between yourself and nature – with just a thin surfboard between you and the depths of the ocean.

While surfing, you’re literally receiving gentle pushes from the ocean.

So yes, the ocean is enormous and mysterious – but we can learn that this isn’t necessarily something to be afraid of. Respected, yes – but not feared.

According to National Geographic, 80% of the ocean is still unexplored. We know more about the moon than we do about the ocean floor. Is that not just mind blowing?

Now think about it. If you can overcome your fear of something so infinite and vast, is there really anything in life that you can’t overcome?

There are spiritual benefits of surfing

So many of our guests here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga are surprised by the power of the ocean.

Not in terms of its strength, but in its ability to foster mindfulness, connection, and reawakening in all of us.

It truly is an insanely spiritual place.

We’re absolutely obsessed with this quote from the 1991 movie Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves:

“Surfing’s the source. It’ll change your life – swear to God. It’s a state of mind. It’s that place when you lose yourself and where you find yourself”.

Surfer paddling with positive attitude to release happy hormonesDopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins

Referred to by Travis – co-owner, lead surf instructor, former competitive surfer with experience of over 30 years, as DOSE; dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins are what we call happy hormones.

Your body releases them when you do something that makes you happy – something you enjoy. Something as simple as a smile can trigger these hormones, instantly making you feel happier.

Sounds strange? Try it!

You can read more about the fascinating science behind DOSE in our blog Is Surfing Hard.

We embrace these happy hormones here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga, and actually integrate the science into our surf lessons. If you’ve ever done a lesson with us, you’ve 100% been told by Travis to Smile While You Paddle.

What does it mean? Well – as you may know, paddling is one of the most tiring parts of surfing, and there’s a lot of it. Surfing is about 70% paddling.

Travis explains to our guests however that, simply by smiling while paddling:

“you send positive signals to your brain and body, which relaxes you in the stressful moment of catching a wave. The more relaxed you are when entering a stressful moment, the more likely you’ll be successful at achieving your goal.”

You’ll get much less frustrated and burned out, making you much more likely to actually catch waves.

We encourage our guests to look at this as a metaphor for life.

We’re no strangers to the fact that life has its difficult moments (*cough* COVID *cough*). And in these moments, there’s often not a lot that we can actually do.

So we might as well just smile through it, right?

If we can learn to smile through these difficulties in life (like paddling!), we can be so much happier and healthier mentally!

Biophilia and falling in love with the ocean

Biophilia translates from Greek literally as “Love of life”.

As humans it’s our innate instinct to connect with nature, and harnesses many mental benefits:

  • Mental agility
  • Memory
  • Ability to think and learn
  • Alertness
  • Concentration and attention
  • Stress relief

By learning to surf and making it a hobby, you will develop routine connections with the ocean that allow you to channel these benefits and experience mental restoration. In other words – clear your mind.

Surfer stoked being in the oceanYour love for the ocean is already in you

In his book Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols answers the question as to why we naturally and innately love water so much.

The answer is simple – we are water.

When we’re born, we’re 78% water.

In fact, we fell in love with water before birth. We spent our first nine months immersed in the ‘watery’ environment of our mothers’ womb. The human body is almost the same density as water – which is what allows us to float.

Travis often shares quotes from Blue Mind with our surf retreat guests – it’s safe to say that it’s  pretty much our bible.

“You didn’t come into this world, you came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here”.

Biophilic design

So how can you benefit from your love of the ocean when you’re not able to surf or hop on a flight to Costa Rica?

Biophilic design! What is this you may ask?

Essentially, it involves designing office, work, and living spaces to encourage the connection between humans and nature.

You can learn more about this and get some ideas of how to incorporate nature into your daily spaces from Bringing the Outdoors In.

Can the ocean benefit from surfers?

Biophilia produces ocean guardians

Our thesis behind teaching people how to surf is that it allows you to fall in love with the ocean, and therefore urges you to protect it.

By teaching people to surf we’re not just drawing more people into the ocean ecosystem.

We’re producing ocean guardians who will make it their responsibility to protect and care for the ocean.

At Bodhi Surf + Yoga we’re all about creating that harmony – if we can clearly benefit so much from the ocean, the ocean should be able to benefit from us, too.

It should be a give and take relationship – and here, it is. That’s the only option.

So maybe here’s something to think about next time you’re out in the ocean:

  • How am I benefiting right now?
  • What’s the ocean giving to me?
  • What do I have to be grateful for?
  • What can I give back to it?

Remember, surfing gives us a full-body workout, yoga session, therapy, friendship, life lessons, and so much more. It teaches us to find ourselves and to love what we find.

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About the author

George Frost

George is a food, music, nature, and football-obsessed blog writer at Bodhi Surf + Yoga. He comes all the way from Bermuda and loves sharing his culture with everyone. He is passionate about traveling, as well as experiencing and learning from other cultures.