Body building for the brain
Words: Simon Hutchinson (Hutch SUP Wear owner)
Pic credits: Craig Osgerby and Fi Plavenieks
Telling SUP enthusiasts that their sport gives them a stack of huge personal life advantages is like convincing the French of the benefits of taking a lover or persuading the Germans to play efficient football: it’s not that difficult to make the argument stick. But most of the information out there selling the benefits of SUP, focus on the physical bonuses of the sport: the buns of steel, the rock hard abs and the toned physique which are the natural and accidental by-product of SUP workouts. They don’t tend to mention what it also does to the most critical part of the body – the brain.
When functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanners were first introduced to the medical community it gave researchers looking at the brain the ability to see what was happening inside without actually having to open the patient up and poke around.
One study used fMRI to take a look at the brains of London cabbies.
London black cab drivers have to spend several years doing ‘the knowledge’ which involves memorizing all the roads and routes in greater London and being able to recall the quickest way between any two points in this huge area. Images of their brains were taken before starting and after finishing ‘the knowledge’ and showed that some areas of their brains were far larger after taking the knowledge than before. The act of committing the geography of London to memory over time had engaged more activity and through the learning, like muscles, their brains had physically changed shape and structure.
Doing any new activity builds connections in the brain but paddle boarding gives huge opportunities for growth because whether you are a newbie or experienced boarder there is always something more challenging you can do with your SUP to crank up the level of difficulty. If you are out regularly it is very difficult have a routine experience because different weather conditions leads to a different experience. Your brain is dealing with a mix of skills, balance and coordination along with strength and cardio which all happens at the same time.
SUP is a uniquely challenging sport particularly for newbies because of the balance challenges. With a high centre of gravity, unstable surface and water movement it forces you to compensate constantly even without the additional movements from paddling.
As more practice goes in and you develop your ability to manage this mix, your brain is physically changing shape and structure, just like it did for the London cabbies. You can tell that these changes are happening because the things that you used to deliberately think about and concentrate on when you first learned them, now happen automatically.
SUP is a uniquely challenging sport particularly for newbies because of the balance challenges.
Any physical activity generates the feel good endorphin hormones and keeps the brain sharper and more effective, but stand up paddle boarding has a multiplier effect because it calls on your physicality and technique to adapt to an environment which is constantly changing. To adapt to these challenges your brain adjusts and uses more working brain power than other activities like running, where the ground is less likely to move unexpectedly and tip you over at any moment. Increased stimulation of the brain through paddle boarding and plenty of practice, can lead to a much better connected brain.
SUP and stress
In this frantic modern world we have constant pressures on our time and our attention which can cause stress, a ‘fight or flight’ response and over time some serious health conditions. One way to deal with this stress is through mindfulness, which is the practice and ability to focus on ‘the present moment’ which is taught by Buddhism and has been adopted by talking therapies like CBT. There are plenty of organizations out there offering mindfulness training, but with SUP it’s a natural and integral part of a session out on the water.
It is not an accident that Yoga has a special relationship with SUP. One of the reasons for this connection is that Yoga on a paddle board gives instant feedback to the Yogis: if they are not focused and mindful and have good form doing a pose on a SUP, then there could be a consequence which involves a short swim.
When you are standing up and paddling normally, the same risk applies. If you are not focused on what you are doing, how you are holding your body or where the next wave is coming from, then you’ll end up in the water. It’s happened to me on social SUP sessions when I’ve ended up in the water after getting too caught up in a conversation, the direct result of being distracted and not paying enough attention.
A mini holiday
Spending time directing your mind in the moment, means you are not spending time worrying about meetings or what you have to catch up on at home. You are giving your brain a mini holiday and helping it recover and reset.
The benefits of this accidental SUP mindfulness training doesn’t just stop when we have loaded the board back onto the roof rack. The immediate effect is to leave us calmer and happier than we set out but because our brains have tuned in to this ‘mindfulness’ break, they’ve made a physical connection in the brain which will makes it much easier to tune back in next time, on or off the board.
SUP for the soul
Spending more time connecting with the water in a natural environment is something that we can all benefit from. There is something naturally calming about seeing the world from a different perspective, from seeing wildlife close up and admiring the beauty of the water, whether it is a lake, river, ocean or sunset.
SUP sessions can offer an effective addition to your life. They can improve your brain, help you deal with stress and give you a means to enjoy the fresh air and other benefits of the outdoors, a great add on to your washboard abs and buns of steel.