How Paddling Improves Mental Health




As a hurried, modern society, we share many of these struggles, but we also share a common healing element: Nature.

What Does Nature Have to Do with Health?

You’ve probably heard of “Nature-Deficit Disorder,” a term coined in 2005 by Richard Louv, to describe the plight of modern children who live media-saturated lives, rarely play outside, and have no connection to nature.

But it’s not just children who experience Nature-Deficit Disorder. Anyone who is alienated from nature can suffer from:

  • diminished sensory use
  • attention difficulties
  • likelihood of obesity
  • higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses

Though not meant as a medical diagnosis, the Nature-Deficit Disorder concept led to nature therapy, or ecotherapy, programs that have proven effective in coping with mental health stresses.

In fact, one of the most effective methods of nature therapy is paddling—kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding—because it appeals to a wide range of experience and comfort levels, body types, and personalities.

If you’re struggling with mental health, here are some reasons to give paddling a try.

Wait, Paddling Improves Mental Health?

As a long-time paddling outfitter, the Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co. has seen many people experience positive changes on the water. Quiet people chat with new friends as they share the excitement of a new skill. Intrepid paddlers gain self-confidence when they steer their boat correctly. All experience the magic when the full moon graces their nighttime adventure.

These experiences free you from your own headspace and connect you to other people and to the wider world.

Not convinced?

In 2018, Women of Adventure surveyed active women who participated in a variety of adventure sports to see how their sports affected their mental health. Of all the athletes, kayakers rated in the top two highest categories for “Life Satisfaction” and “Happiness,” and scored second-lowest in their reported levels of anxiety.

Paddling Is Good Physical Exercise

Paddling is considered an adventure sport, but the level of intensity and adventure is up to you.

A leisurely paddle will exercise your shoulders and abdominals, or you can add a cardio workout by paddling hard towards that far spot on the horizon.

Choosing a paddleboard (SUP) will require not only abdominal strength but challenge your legs and sense of balance as well.

Paddling is a true “challenge by choice” activity that allows you to push yourself or take it easy, whatever the present moment suggests.

Paddling Encourages Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a meditative activity that helps you focus on the present moment and its surroundings. Tuning into your senses and your breath decreases the anxious states of worry, overplanning, and stress.

Sounds nice, but many of us have a hard time with structured meditations or even remembering to tune in.

That’s why paddling is so effective; it gets you out into the novel and ever-changing world of nature. Simply being on the water engages the senses and forces you to pay attention to the world outside your own mind.

Want to add mindfulness practice to your paddling trip? Try these tips:

  • Pay attention – Check in with each of your senses as you paddle. Listen for birds; look at the color of the sky; feel the breeze shift.
  • Live in the moment – Paying attention will help you focus on the present rather than worrying over the future or past.
  • Accept yourself – You are who and where you are. And that’s enough.
  • Focus on your breathing — Watch your breath as it moves evenly through your body. This has a calming effect.

Make Friends on the Water

Social connections help people live longer and more fulfilling lives, and yet many Americans now feel socially isolated and lonely. Isolation, though difficult to measure, seems to be associated with increased health risks, and for some groups, suicide.

Social isolation and depression/anxiety can create a cycle where one feels unworthy of friendship and fears the awkwardness of reaching out.

This is where paddling outfitters can help ease social anxiety.

When you book a trip with an outfitter, they will plan the trip and provide the gear, so you don’t need to stress about being prepared.

The best part? This isn’t some awkward cocktail mixer. Everyone there will have a similar interest: paddling. Most will be strangers to each other and willing to meet new people.

And you won’t be alone. Simply joining the trip gives you a group.

Relax and talk about what you’re seeing and doing: learning to control your boat, how it feels to be outside, that strange bird call you’re hearing.

These shared experiences create friendship.

So, if you’re feeling alone, stressed, or just need to relax, take a chance on a paddle trip.

You won’t regret it.