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Add Excellent Mental Health to Your Fitness Goals for 2017

January 9, 2017


IMG_0820.jpgI don’t know about you, but this past election cycle was so negative in every respect, even my excessive positivity was sorely challenged.

Striving for a heavy-duty strategy for protecting my mental health and retaining a sense of humor, I hit upon the answer:

Go surfing.

While that might sound like a glib solution, it’s not in the least, especially considering I grew up in Illinois and therefore always considered the ocean a fine thing so long as the water was Hawaii-style warm, the day was hot and the waves were small enough to play in, but not enough to kill me.

Even after living in California for almost two decades, I was still one of those people who stood with tourists atop the cliff, watching the surfers below. I’d marvel at their skill, and when they got churned by a wave, was grateful it wasn’t me.

Then about seven years ago, a friend asked if I wanted to take a surfing lesson in Santa Cruz. Always interested in trying a new movement challenge, and too chicken to look chicken, I said, “Sure.” Yet I didn’t sleep well the night due to images of an overcast sky and huge waves curling over me.

Fortunately, the lesson went very well. The day was bright and sunny, the weather was so warm I sweated beneath my wetsuit and I managed to ride a wave, the feel like that of having a motorboat on the back of my board. I not only survived, but had fun. The challenge complete, I assumed I’d never surf again.

A year later, the same friend asked if I wanted to go again. Though still nervous about the idea, I remembered the motorboat feeling and agreed.

The second outing, however, wasn’t as pleasant. The weather was cold, the sky overcast, the waves bigger and the break a lot more crowded. I got separated from the instructor and had no idea how to get back to shore without getting mowed over by a surfer who would suddenly appear, yelling at me to get out of the way.

I managed to ride in, belly down on my board. But by then I was shaking badly from the cold air and water and I felt dispirited by such a nerve-wracking experience.

Another five surf-free years passed until last year when a woman in one of my classes asked me to take a class with her and the instructor she’d been taking lessons from for about a year.

I’d always felt disappointed in my last experience, so I again agreed, and again I couldn’t sleep the night before and again the sky was overcast, the water was cold, and the two-foot waves looked huge. But this time I asked very particular questions about how to safely get into the surf and how to avoid having them crash over my head. Though I only got up a few times, I had more skills to keep myself safe and so felt more in control than I had before.

I felt so much better, I started asking the advice of others who regularly surfed, especially two surfer chicks who were kind enough to not only trade me a used wetsuit for a loaf of banana bread, but also asked me to go surfing with them. Being with people who were compassionate to a newbie allowed me to build the infrastructure to start surfing once a week. I bought a big boat of a surfboard (see photo above); figured out how to get it into my car; discovered where I could surf on a regular basis without hurting myself; routinely perused the website that lists surf conditions for those locations; and learned the etiquette of how to ride waves when others were around.

Which brings me back to using this new endeavor to maintain good mental health.

One day last fall when politics had grown particularly ugly and I had the feeling humanity was at death’s door, I drove down to my normal surfing spot in Capitola. I pulled on my wetsuit and booties, and holding my board on my head, trudged down the stairs to the beach. I paddled out into the waves and got tossed and tossed and tossed again. But somewhere in there, I caught a wave and motored along, yelling all the way. I paddled back out and sat on the board and looked at everyone else floating nearby, watching for the next wave to catch. The sun was out and the great ocean was spread before me. That was the moment I regained perspective on life.

By embracing an activity that still scares me silly until I actually get out on the water, and by digging into and overcoming the obstacles to performing an activity so far from my land-bound upbringing, I found a healthy, active, beautiful means of focusing on the good in life.

So with a hearty thank you to all of the friends who helped me discover a means of retaining sanity via surfing, I wish you the same luck in finding an engrossing, sometimes scary, often thrilling activity that promotes your both your mental and physical health while fostering hope for the future.

Happy New Year!



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