Paddling through mental health: Long-term benefits of SUP revealed in "Freedom on Water" study

A study published in the journal Healthcare highlights the significance of nature and blue space activities in improving mental health in individuals with mental disorders.

SUP activity, used with permission from Surf & SUP Denmark (Photo: Jakob Gjerluff, Gjerluff Photography). Study: Two-and-a-Half-Year Follow-up Study with Freedom on Water through Stand-up Paddling: Exploring Experiences in Blue Spaces and Their Long-Term Impact on Mental Well-Being

SUP activity, used with permission from Surf & SUP Denmark (Photo: Jakob Gjerluff, Gjerluff Photography). Study: Two-and-a-Half-Year Follow-up Study with Freedom on Water through Stand-up Paddling: Exploring Experiences in Blue Spaces and Their Long-Term Impact on Mental Well-Being

Background

Humans have long used blue spaces or aquatic environments, such as oceans, rivers, and lakes, for habitation, physical activity, relaxation, and healing. Existing literature indicates that blue space activities are associated with improved mental health and well-being.

Considering its positive impact on health and well-being, many blue space interventions have been launched in many countries across the world. These interventions mainly involve physical activities conducted near, on, or in the water.

A project called “Freedom on Water” was launched by Surf & SUP Denmark in 2020, which offers surfing and stand-up paddling (SUP) for adults living with a mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, or stress.

The primary aim of this project is to help the participants experience nature and relax from their daily life challenges. The preliminary short-term analysis of the project has shown improvements in participants’ self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and social integration, as well as a reduction in rumination.

In this study, scientists have investigated the long-term effects of SUP on mental well-being among individuals participating in the “Freedom on Water” project. 

Study design

A total of eight participants, including six women (primary participants) with one or more mental disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, stress, or schizophrenia) and two certified female SUP instructors (secondary participants), were included in this follow-up study. This follow-up study was conducted two and a half years after the initial study (2021). Semi-structured interviews were taken to evaluate the long-term experiences of the participants on their well-being and mental health.

Important observations

The analysis of observational data led to the identification of five main themes, including SUP as a catalyst for broadening horizons; learning: a step out of the comfort zone; a break from diagnosis and rumination; connectedness to nature and peer groups; and a shift in mindset.

All themes overlapped each other, and together, they formed a holistic picture of the participants’  experiences regarding Freedom on Water

All themes overlapped each other, and together, they formed a holistic picture of the participants’  experiences regarding Freedom on Water.

SUP as a catalyst for the broadening of horizons

The participants reported that SUP acted as a catalyst for them to start new activities, such as group-based nature programs, cinema club activities, water gymnastics, and meditation.

In general, SUP helped participants realize their inner resources and boost their self-confidence and socialization power, which collectively enabled them to explore and apply new activities in daily life.

“I specifically strive to see some water, like if it is possible to go for a walk along the water then I just feel really good. Then I can imagine myself being out there where nobody can reach me, and I can just be in the moment.”

Learning: a step out of the comfort zone

The participants reported improvement in their growth and learning process, which helped them come out of their comfort zone. They experienced a range of exposures, such as falling on water, which they found challenging, fun, boundary-pushing, and instructive.

Two project instructors reported experiencing gradual growth of participants over time. According to their observations, overcoming fear and experiences of success boosted self-confidence and the willingness of participants to get out of their comfort zones.

A break from diagnosis and rumination

The participants reported experiencing a break from their rumination by focusing on the SUP technique and balance. Many participants reported feeling calm, relaxed, and energized during SUP for the rest of the day.

Connectedness to nature and peer groups

The participants reported experiencing the positive and calming effects of water and nature on them. They associated water and nature with calmness, positivity, a free space, and a sense of freedom.

Some participants reported appreciating nature more than ever after starting SUP, indicating a change in their perception of water and nature.

The participants reported that meeting and spending time with like-minded peers through the “Freedom on Water” project had helped them make new friends. Such socialization also improved their self-confidence and acceptance of life situations.

Two instructors reported observing participants’ social growth, which included making new friends and helping others. According to their observations, some participants even took leadership roles when new members joined the project.

A shift in mindset

The participants reported experiencing positive changes in their lives that helped them accept their reality instead of thinking negatively about it. They were inspired to become more involved in new activities encompassing social interactions and nature experiences.  

Overall, the participants reported that “Freedom on Water” had improved their mood and happiness and reduced social insecurity.

“Those days where I’m really struggling with my disease, I go out and feel the nature as a calm and peaceful place and I just listen to the birds. I’ve bought my own SUPboard so when it is really bad, I can just go on the water on my own and get a free space there. So, nature has more become a free space rather than just a matter of course”.

Study significance

The study finds that the “Freedom on Water” project involving SUP has a long-term, life-changing positive impact on the mental health, well-being, and social health of individuals living with mental disorders.

The study identifies five themes that overlapped and worked in synergy to create a holistic picture of participants’ experiences.

The study involved a small group of female participants, which may restrict the generalizability of the findings. Besides SUP activities, other experiences gained by the participants during the long-term study period might also have some influence on their mental health. These factors should be considered in future studies.  

Journal reference:
  • Elisabeth Bomholt Østergaard. 2024. Two-and-a-Half-Year Follow-up Study with Freedom on Water through Stand-up Paddling: Exploring Experiences in Blue Spaces and Their Long-Term Impact on Mental Well-Being. Healthcare, DOI: 10.3390/healthcare12101004, https://www.mdpi.com/2227-9032/12/10/1004  
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.

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