Surfing Study Examines Cardiac Health
By Margaret Chantung
Kinesiology researchers at CSUSM are conducting new research on the health benefits of recreational surfing, seeking to further substantiate the sports' value as a dynamic physical workout that positively contributes to cardiovascular health.
Conducting both field and lab research, kinesiology undergraduates and faculty observe study participants at the beach and in a simulation lab on campus, analyzing the heart rates, oxygen intake, activity levels and paddling mechanics of surfers.
The research being led by CSUSM professor Dr. Sean Newcomer and his team is the first of its kind on recreational surfing, and studies both male and female surfers ranging from their teens to 65 years old.
Heart Health and Ocean Waves
“While studies have been conducted with professional surfers in competition, there is limited research on the average person who surfs recreationally,” said Newcomer. “Our research gives us an opportunity to consider the physiological benefit of surfing for amateur surfers of all ages and fitness levels, including both men and women.”
For some, the concept of surfing may appear simple – all you technically need is a wave and a surfboard – anyone who has attempted surfing knows that the reality is much more complex. Physically speaking, surfers are essentially strong swimmers with a keen sense of balance. Stamina and upper body strength are crucial in order to paddle from the shore through breaking waves to reach the surf line. Once there, surfers wait on their boards and then paddle intensely when a quality wave presents itself. As the wave peaks, a surfer must pop up rapidly and smoothly to his or her feet from a lying down position, balancing in a fluid upright position as they glide on the breaking wave toward the shore.
“Surfing can definitely be considered a form of interval training which combines short, high intensity bursts of speed with a recovery phase, repeated during exercise training,” said Newcomer.
Students Ride a Wave of Research
The research study began as part of Dr. Newcomer’s course, Introductory Exercise Physiology 326, in the fall of 2013 and has since branched off into multiple studies, each led by teams of undergraduate researchers. The students are responsible for every aspect of the research protocol, which includes both laboratory and field work.
“Last semester’s students are helping to teach this semester’s students how to use the lab equipment while advising and training them,” said Dr. Newcomer. “This is a terrific opportunity for the more experienced students to take on a leadership role while allowing the current students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to a real-world project. And the added benefit is the outreach to the community in the recruitment of surfers to participate in the study.”
In one of the studies, students collect and record field data from surfers. Meeting research participants at the beach, students outfit the surfer with a waterproof heart rate monitor which is synchronized to a video camera filming them while they are in the ocean.
“I help analyze the data to match up the heart rate of the surfer to the activity that they are doing in the water – paddling, riding waves, sitting stationary on the board or a miscellaneous activity,” said senior kinesiology major Alyzza DeMesa. “We also record their maximum and minimum heart rates and how much time they spent in the water doing each activity.”
Hands-on Laboratory Experiments Delve into Surf Fitness
In the laboratory, research participants take part in a number of activities that test their anaerobic and aerobic fitness levels. Using a Biodex isokinetic machine, which applies computer-controlled resistance, students assess the strength of the subject’s quadriceps and hamstrings. This test helps researchers determine the role of leg strength in a surfer’s stance and balance.
“I get them all strapped up and make sure that they’re completely snug but comfortable,” said kinesiology major Erik Tolentino. “I line up their knee with the machine and then also check for any internal or external leg rotation by having them do a couple of practice kicks. This is important because if their knee is not properly aligned with the machine, there is risk of damaging the ligaments due to the high resistance.”
Another study is testing participants’ upper body muscular power and utilization of oxygen using a swim bench customized with a surfboard to simulate paddling.
“With each participant we switch roles,” said Chelsea Peters, a junior kinesiology major. “We are all responsible for informing each participant what they will be doing and why we are performing this particular protocol. During this particular test, one person takes the heart rate every 50 seconds, one person runs the metabolic cart, one person takes down the watts put out by the participant every 10 seconds, one person holds the hose out of the way and everyone cheers the participant on!”
Over the next two years, Dr. Newcomer and his student researchers hope to study 600 surfers.
“Many surfers believe that while surfing is fun, it’s not necessarily a viable form of exercise on its own,” said Dr. Newcomer. “This information has so far shown that surfing is very beneficial to the cardiovascular system and is a great part of a healthy lifestyle.”
“It’s one thing to learn about the effects of exercise, but it is another to actually see it happening,” said Peters, who is planning to go on to graduate school for her master’s in athletic training and a doctorate in physical therapy. “Actually being able to conduct research has changed the way I learn. I have been able to learn concepts and apply them in the lab. I know what to look for while testing and I am able to point out when something is abnormal. I know a lot of us are now considering going into research because of the opportunities at CSUSM that we have been given.”