Staff Perspective: Veterans and Surfing

Staff Perspective: Veterans and Surfing

Laura Cho-Stutler, Psy.D.

Surfing?  I don’t mean the kind that includes Facebook, channel, Internet, or the couch. I never thought that I could mix surfing with an area of my work. It’s like when someone says, “No, you can’t have both.” I am pleased at the chance to bring it up and share a recent development happening with our Veterans and the oceans that connect us. Veterans are learning and teaching others how to surf, while sharing in the mental and physical benefits.

We know it is not a stretch to say that exercise can improve our physical and emotional well-being. There are many reports demonstrating those benefits with veterans, (Whitworth & Ciccolo, 2016). For example, researchers using the baseline data from the Mind Your Heart Study, a cohort of U.S. Veteran outpatients, examined obesity risk factors in 735 U.S. Veterans, with and without PTSD. Results indicated that the risk of obesity in Veterans with PTSD was shown to be reduced by exercise (Smith, Tyzik, Neylan, & Cohen, 2015).

Another example comes from a study with a large sample of 38,883 U.S. Service members from the Millennium Cohort Study, which examined the association between PTSD and exercise. The intensity of exercise was divided into light/moderate or vigorous exercise. Those with vigorous exercise and baseline symptoms in 2001 were less likely to have persistent symptoms of PTSD at the follow-up during 2004-2006. Participants were less likely to develop new symptoms when they reported at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise twice weekly. (LeardMann et al., 2011).

Just add water?
Depledge & Bird (2009) described the “blue gym” as an approach to promote well-being through being active in water environments such as surfing, kayaking, swimming, or walking along the beach. Being active can be stimulated by being near natural water. Stronger communities, stress reduction, and increased physical activity are three benefits from regular contact with natural environments. The blue gym helps us to connect to each other and the value of nature and our aquatic environments.

There are some recent reports looking at the positive impact of surfing on PTSD symptoms for Veterans. Through qualitative research and the narrative stories told by Veterans, Caddic, Smith, and Phoenix (2015a), found that surfing was described as a “sense of respite from PTSD” for combat Veterans. The researchers maintained that the Veterans did not see surfing as a means to make their PTSD symptoms disappear. Instead, the Veterans showed that there was a relief from the day-to-day suffering of PTSD through surfing. They could enjoy the moment and that felt these moments should happen regularly.

Perhaps these moment could be likened to those in mindfulness when you can be fully present with five senses. You hear the waves, the water moving onto your board, and the conversation of an old friend. You see the water, sky, sun, clouds, mountains or hills. You breathe in salt air and taste the salt water. You feel the water around you, the temperature, the movement, and the board. Moment to moment, things change and you’re fully aware.  

While it is no cure, there is also no surprise how Veterans might call this respite. Veterans described how surfing can be an opportunity to have regular breaks from suffering. This also included breaks from finding other ways to end the suffering, such as suicide. Veterans articulated that surfing brought positive emotions through storytelling of an experience, a focus on the present, and a planned event to look forward to for help. Lastly, camaraderie facilitated respite through the relationships with other Veterans in the common activity of surfing (Caddic, Smith & Phoenix, 2015a).

If a Veteran wants, he/she can go to the beach with a friend or alone, depending on their desire to be social. But, if a Veteran would like to try out surfing for the first time or go with a group of Veterans, there has been a growth in schools or camps devoted to Veterans who want to surf. For example, Warrior Surf Foundation in South Carolina, promotes physical and mental well-being with a mission to bring Veterans and their families together through surfing. Operation Surf, a week long camp in Southern California, teaches Veterans how to surf and promotes the pro-social aspects of surfing with camaraderie. The camp was recently highlighted in “Resurface,” a 2015 documentary about a Veteran who suffered with trauma and depression, and almost took his life before he tried surfing.

In a recent interview, Josh Izenberg, the director, described surfing’s benefits on veterans suffering from PTSD to include: 1) the ocean’s cathartic ability to wash away negative emotions, 2) learning to surf puts you in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel and focus, 3) reducing symptoms because it requires to focus and be present, and 4) recreating the novelty required for the adrenaline rush that is appealing to many Veterans, and 5) the physical exertion helps with sleep (Bergland, 2015).

There might also be similarities around the surfing culture and the Veteran’s military culture. Surfing requires good physical strength and movement. For Veterans, this can resemble their daily physical training and being in physically strenuous circumstances. Also, surfing is often seen as a masculine sport. This masculine performance that is cultivated during military service, may also be a resource for well-being (Caddick, Smith, Pheonix, 2015b). Furthermore, the sense of belonging to a limited subculture parallels to the socialization of specialty training and credentials. There is a common bond among those who may have shared the experience together either in water or on land.

Understanding how military populations benefit from the connection between a natural water environment and exercise leaves us with a lack of research. However, there is a start and it appears to be a positive one. Research evidence or not, it is clear that Veterans who have experienced surfing have reaped the benefits: respite, physical exertion, and camaraderie. Writing this entry helped me to understand what I have intuitively known and love about surfing: nature, the physical challenge, salt water, and my community. And, it’s for my mental health. I’m now pleased to be able to say, “Yes, you can have both.”

Laura Cho-Stutler, Psy.D., is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the Center for Deployment Psychology 


Bergland, C. (2015). “Surf Therapy” and being in the ocean can alleviated PTSD. An interview with Josh Izenberg about his PTSD documentary “Resurface.” Psychology Today retrieved from

Caddick, N., Smith, B., & Phoenix, C. (2015a). The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qualitative Health Research, 25 (1), 76-86.

Caddick, N., Smith, B., & Phoenix, C. (2015b). Male combat veterans’ narratives of PTSD, masculinity,and health. Sociology of Health & Illness, 37 (1), 97-111. doi: 10.111//1467-9566.12183

Depledge, M., & Bird, W. (2009). The blue gym: Health and wellbeing from our coasts. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58, 947-948. doi: 10.1016?j.cpr.2009.09.001

LeardMann C., Kelton, M.L., & Smith, B., p Millennium Cohort Study Team, (2011). Prospectively assessed posttraumatic stress disorder and associated physical activity. Public Health Reports, 126 (3); 371-383.

Smith, B.N., Tyzik, A.L., Neylan, T.C., & Cohen, B.E. (2015). PTSD and obesity in younger and older veterans: results from the mind your heart study. Psychiatry Research, 229 (3), 895-900.

Whitworth, J.W. & Ciccolo, J.T. (2016). Exercise and post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans: A systematic review. Military Medicine, 181 (9), 953-960.