Surf therapy combines surfing with structured individual or group activities as a means of therapy to promote psychological, physical, and social well-being.
In a clinical setting, mental and physical health professionals combine their professional expertise with the activity of surfing in:
- physical therapy
- occupational therapy
People who are not clinical experts may structure other surf therapy programs around physical health to improve psychological and psychical wellness.
Growing evidence supports the effectiveness of surf therapy, but more research is necessary to determine how people can benefit from these types of programs.
In this article, we look at what surf therapy involves, who may benefit from it, and whether any health considerations are involved. We also look at alternatives to surf therapy.
Surf therapy involves the use of surfing, the therapeutic elements of the ocean, and structured water activities tailored to each individual’s needs.
A psychologist, physical therapist, or social worker
A surf instructor can adapt the surfing sessions to meet the needs of the individual or a group of individuals. They can help participants work within their boundaries toward their personal goals. Volunteers in a surf therapy program can provide support and mentoring during the sessions.
- specific symptoms, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- social skills
- mobility and physical health
- overall mental health
- coping skills
Read more about mental health on our dedicated hub.
The previously mentioned
- children with autism
- people with depression and anxiety
- children from underresourced families
- people with physical disabilities
- people with PTSD
A 2020 research review also found that surf therapy could treat various symptoms and benefit many people. The review highlighted studies that suggested surf therapy could help treat the following groups of people:
Children and youth in need of social and emotional support
Children and youth could benefit from surf therapy if they have experienced:
- foster care
- exposure to violence
After therapy, children and young people expressed that they had:
- had improved emotional regulation
- had better engagement with school
- felt happier and better
- had made friends
- felt more confident
- felt physically fit
Young adult cancer survivors
After surf therapy, young adult cancer survivors reported:
- decreased symptoms of depression and feelings of alienation
- increased feelings of self-esteem
- more positive body image
- higher self-compassion
According to research, surf therapy helped veterans to:
- reduce symptoms of depression and PTSD
- increase feelings of self-efficacy
- alleviate stress
- reduce the use of narcotics
Youth with disabilities
Young people with disabilities noticed improvements in:
- anxiety levels
- social development
- physical fitness
Numerous other studies report positive results from surf therapy:
- A 2019 study focused on psychological outcomes among U.S. active duty service members suggests that participants showed significantly reduced:
- Research from 2021 found that after 8 weeks of surf therapy, young people:
- were more resilient
- had higher self-esteem
- were more socially connected
- had a reduction in depression symptoms
- A 2017 study found that surf therapy helped institutionalized young people improve:
- interpersonal relationships
- effort and perseverance
- time management
- emotional regulation
Physical activity releases hormones and causes other physiological processes that lead to an overall improvement in mental health and improvement in sleep quality.
Additional mental health benefits
Surf therapy may be particularly effective in treating mental health — physical activity in a natural environment, particularly near water, can have added benefits. These include:
- reducing stress hormones
- reducing depression
- reducing anxiety
- contributing to well-being
- reducing anger
- offering a stimulating sensory experience
During surf therapy, surf instructors and volunteers should make every effort to conduct sessions in safe areas of the ocean during safe times of the day. Surf instructors should also remain within each person’s boundaries when instructing and consider any limitations or individual concerns during the session.
For these reasons, surf therapy should be as safe as possible. However, surfing does present certain risks.
These can include:
- surfer’s ear, which can lead to hearing loss
- respiratory issues
- skin irritation
- gastrointestinal issues
- exposure to bacteria
- exposure to toxins
- exposure to harmful algae
- interactions with dangerous marine life
People should discuss these concerns with their instructor and consult a doctor if they believe they are experiencing symptoms due to the above risks.
For more information about surf therapy, read more from The International Surf Therapy Organization.
A person may seek other treatment for mental health conditions instead of or as well as surf therapy.
Learn more about anxiety treatment.
Surf therapy combines the physical activity of surfing with structured activities to help promote physical, psychological, and social well-being. During surf therapy, a surf instructor and volunteers will guide, mentor, and support people, which can positively affect mental health.
There are risks involved with surfing, but surf instructors should help to minimize these risks and reassure the people considering and using this type of therapy.