Mental Health Awareness: The Positive Effects of Paddling

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a designated time to talk openly about managing emotions and advocate for the mental wellness of our friends, family, and of course – ourselves! 

As of 2024, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent of mental health conditions, followed by depression and then PTSD. While many mental health diagnoses are biological or genetic, several of them are a direct result of situational or social conditions. Meaning we’re all likely to experience mental health challenges at some point in our lives.

One of the most popular and effective ways to combat mental illness is with exercise, and paddling has especially powerful mental health benefits. Let’s deep dive into the various ways water sports can help with your mental health.

Blue space is good for the brain

There have been numerous studies on how spending time near water helps both your body and mind. There’s a reason urban planners incorporate “blue spaces” like fountains and other water features into their designs. While unnatural urban environments tend to increase stress and tension in humans, blue spaces create a visceral feeling of calm.

According to a 2017 study by Pearson et al, simply the visual effect of water-based scenery produces a calming effect in humans. Something as simple as an image of a water scene can improve your mood! In other words, by being near the water, you’re doing yourself a mental health favor before you even get out your paddle.

Nature elevates mood

If you’re even remotely an outdoor enthusiast, you’ve probably experienced the mood-boosting benefits of spending time in nature. Though there are many theories as to the “why” or “how” behind this phenomenon, it’s been observed that spending time outside helps to refocus attention, restore cognitive resources, and reduce stress. Whether this is due to how we evolved to rely on the natural world for survival for the majority of history or due to the all-encompassing sensorial experience of being outside (from sights and sounds to smells and feelings), enjoying nature is often the fastest path to a mental health boost.

Time spent near water improves sleep

Sleep is a major culprit when it comes to mental health problems. Loss of sleep is associated with a range of conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. One of the best ways to improve your quality of sleep is through physical activity. Some studies show being near water actually promotes good sleep hygiene as well. How does it work? The sound of waves lapping or water falling creates something called “pink noise,” which is a more soothing form of white noise that helps promote feelings of calm and sleepiness. Another study found that breathing in sea air improved the duration of participants’ sleep. Those who walked by the ocean slept 47 minutes longer on average.

Swimming improves chronic joint and muscular problems

While chronic health issues like arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease are considered physical health challenges rather than mental, they certainly can have a negative impact on mental health as they diminish quality of life. One of the best ways to counteract the negative effects of chronic disease is through swimming. Swimming is a low-intensity aerobic activity that utilizes nearly all of your body’s muscles. It’s an excellent way to stay in shape without putting undue stress on sensitive joints and muscles. Similarly, kayaking and paddleboarding can be low-intensity aerobic activities that also provide a bit of upper-body strength training amid the mood-boosting benefits of being on the water.

In addition to its physical benefits, swimming, much like other aerobic activities like running, requires you to focus on rhythmic breathing, which is key to regulating stress. While some may use breathwork during meditation to enhance calm, others may find it much easier to get the same benefits through moderate to intense aerobic exercise.

Paddling releases endorphins

Endorphins are the “feel good” hormones that our body releases when we’re engaged in several activities, from exercise to eating food to having sex. They have a sedating effect that’s similar to morphine, helping to alleviate pain. Paddling, like other forms of exercise, naturally releases endorphins, improving a variety of mental health issues.

As Girl Paddlers, we’ve experienced firsthand the mental health benefits of paddling. If you’re trying to convince your friends to get on board with your paddling obsession, share this article to spread the love during Mental Health Awareness Month. Happy paddling!


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