Updated: November 18, 2010, 12:46 PM ET

The science of stoke

By Matt Higgins
ESPN Action Sports
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GettyArmy Sgt. Joseph Serino, who lost both legs in Iraq, attends Operation Amped, a surf camp for injured service men and women

Call it the science of stoke.

In October, Britain's National Health Service (NHS) concluded the first phase of a pioneering program to assess whether surfing can be used as an effective therapy for treating depression and other mental health disorders.

Under instruction from coaches, 22 participants between the ages of 12 and 23 with mental health issues from depression to schizophrenia and psychosis learned to ride waves for six weeks on the rugged Cornwall coast, in southwest England. The project was a pilot program funded with 5,000 pounds -- about $8,000 -- from a local trust of the NHS. Participants were referred by charities and mental health professionals, and a follow-up report measuring progress in their mood will be reviewed by the local trust.

The essence of the program: get participants stoked on surfing and build on those good feelings, according to Joe Taylor, who oversaw the program. "By the end of six weeks, some were catching waves to a reasonable standard," Taylor said.

Participants rated their feelings before the lessons began, and again after the study concluded. "The improvement was particularly significant in some cases in terms of self-esteem and having fun," Taylor said.

Studies have already demonstrated that physical activities such as running can chase negative feelings. And although there's plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting positive results from using surfing as therapy for a range of physical and mental ailments, only recently has science begun to establish a link between surfing and mood.

"Being stoked, being in the zone really contributes," said Dr. Jo Lewis, a consultant pediatrician on the NHS's surfing and mental health project. "We've seen young people getting in the zone." In August, Ryan Pittsinger, a surfer and doctoral student at the University of Iowa, presented a paper at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association showing that riding waves for 30 minutes increased positive feelings and diminished negative ones.

Pittsinger and colleagues polled more than 100 surfers in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on their mood both before and after surfing. The result: subjects described being in a better mood and experiencing increased feelings of calmness after catching a couple waves.

All of which would come as no surprise to dedicated surfers. "If you ask any surfer, he or she guaranteed will tell you, 'Oh man I feel a lot better after I get out,'" Pittsinger told LiveScience.

Pittsinger is now compiling a study on the efficacy of surfing as therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton, in Oceanside, Calif. The program, called "ocean therapy", was developed by the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation, a non-profit based in Manhattan Beach that offers surfing to those coping with mental or physical illnesses.

As with the NHS pilot study, the purpose of the program is to apply the success and stoke participants experience from surfing to other aspects of their lives. Other groups, working with participants representing a range of physical and mental ailments, rely on similar principles:

*Life Rolls On, a foundation benefiting those with spinal cord injuries, makes surfing a main focus of its mission. Last month, Life Rolls on held its 39th They Will Surf Again event, in which those with spinal cord injuries get together to surf.

*Surfers Healing is a free surf camp for children with autism. At past camps, professional surfer Clay Marzo, of Hawaii, has participated as a volunteer with campers. Marzo, 21, suffers from Asberger's Syndrome, a milder form of autism with symptoms that include obsession. Marzo's obsession is surfing, which he has attributed, in part, to his success as a professional.

*In Cornwall, Combat Surfers, a group for veterans in the United Kingdom with post-traumatic stress disorder, held its first event last year. Combat Surfers is based on Operation Amped, a similar operation founded in the U.S. in 2006 that offers wounded and injured veterans a chance to surf at events year-round.

There's no question that for many -- whether with a disability, disorder or not -- surfing is fun and feels good. But will the NHS study conclude that the sport can indeed combat depression? Dr. Lewis is a former surfer whose husband rides waves regularly.

"I think it makes a difference," she said. "I think it's worthwhile."

Spoken like a stoked surfer.

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the NHS study was overseen by Freedom Surf.

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