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Why Surfers Are Fitter and Happier Than You

It's all about finding your flow, dude.

Surfers are known for having great bodies. But they’re also notorious slackers. You, on the other hand, work out three times a week and still feel self-conscious taking off your shirt at the beach. What gives?

Turns out, if an activity can make you smile, it can also get you ripped. No, it’s not because of some recently discovered neuromuscular pathway that converts smiles to six-packs—but there is some science to it. And if you don’t trust the lab coats, just ask a surfer.


In a study published this past May in the journal Marketing Letters, researchers split subjects into two groups and had each go out for a walk. The mileage was identical for both groups, yet once the activity was over, one group loaded up on unhealthier—and significantly more—belly-padding calories than the other. The big difference between the two groups, interestingly, was the name the researchers assigned to each walk: Subjects who were led along a “scenic walk” made healthier food choices and consumed fewer calories overall than those who were made to be under the impression it was an “exercise walk.”

A separate field study carried out by the same group of researchers quizzed marathoners about their post-race indulgences; it revealed that the more fun the runners reported having along the course, the less likely they were to stuff their faces after crossing the finish line. “The more fun we have, the less we’ll feel the need to compensate for the effort,” the study’s leader, Carolina O.C. Werle of the Grenoble School of Management in France, told the New York Times.

Finding a fun way to get your heart-rate up, it seems, has double-barrel benefits: You burn calories (and build muscle, depending on the activity), and then you eat cleaner after.


The place is Huntington Beach, California. It’s the 2014 Vans US Open of Surfing. In the water, the world’s top wave riders are bobbing in the distance beneath an overcast sky.

As the timer on the giant G-Shock watch mounted on the iconic pier winds down to zero, they wait, eyes fixed on the horizon, for the perfect moment to break into a frantic paddle before explosively popping up onto their feet and thrashing in a wild but controlled manner atop the modest three-foot waves.

Back on the beach, in a booth set up behind the throngs of spectators, Yadin Nicol, a professional surfer from Australia, talks about how the benefits of maintaining an active passion extend beyond healthier food choices. Not long after finding your activity, he says, you’ll actually want to work out. In a gym and everything! Not for abs, or for arms, or for anything on the surface, but rather to become more capable at doing what you love. Because the better you are, the more fun you can have.

“I train to surf,” he says. “In surfing you want to have a strong core and also be as loose as possible, and explosive. So I train for those specific things and then I feel that when I train a lot it brings me confidence.”

“I feel as though I’ve got a better relationship with my wife and family when I’m surfing,” he adds. “It’s like anything—if you don’t get to do what you love, you get bummed out.”

Nicol is one of the best surfers in the world today, and with the help of sponsors like G-Shock, which also happens to be a sponsor of the event [Editor’s note: If you’re looking for a rad new watch for summer, check out the just-released, camouflaged G-Shock GD-120CM; $130,], he’s been able to turn his passion into a paycheck, as well as a textbook surfer physique, complete with sculpted arms and defined abs. Call them side effects.

“There are so many occasions when I’m not even trying to put myself on a strict diet regimen or anything like that but it just kind of occurs due to the weather and the atmosphere outside,” agrees Baby G rider Erica Hosseini, for whom surfing falls squarely in the “scenic walk” category.“ Having a good surf session just motivates me. If you’re doing something really fun, and you’re getting better at it, you’re going to want to do it again later that day, so you’re not going to want to put yourself in a lazy mood and binge on a bunch of sugar and a bunch of carbs. You’re going to want to eat a nutritious meal—your body’s going to want protein, it fuels you up for a better rest of your day. You’re naturally adapting to a great lifestyle without thinking like, ‘OK, I have to do two hours in the gym.’ You don’t even think about it. At the end of the day you’re like, ‘Well I ate great and I stayed active all day long.’”


So, how do you find your surfboard—metaphorically speaking, of course (or not)? The lab coats and beach bros agree, you have to go with the “flow.”

More than disposable surf jargon, “flow” is an established psychological principle, coined by famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. and defined as the state of mind in which a person is focused so intently on the task at hand that they lose all sense of their surroundings and the passage of time. Not only that, psychologists theorize that finding your “flow” is one of the most motivating factors in adhering to regular planned physical activity.

“Previous research has demonstrated that many exercisers do not work out as ‘an act of freedom,’ but are there to lose weight, to tone up, to stay fit, or to avoid obesity related illnesses,” University of Alberta’s Prikko Markula, Ph.D. wrote in a column for Psychology Today last year. And that in order to solidify a habit of staying in shape, “we would need to either make exercise something that people engage in as an act of freedom or something that they like doing,” adding, “The ‘fun’ of ‘flow’ would thus be connected to the present and the experience of moving or exercising itself, rather than to the various ‘positive’ future outcomes to be reaped from exercising”—like that six-pack you want so badly. “If the emphasis shifts into weight loss or developing long and lean muscles as a result of exercise, the possibility for a ‘flow’ experience is lost.”

“When I’m surfing good waves, for me there’s not a worry in the world,” says Nicol.

“You just kind of find a zone—it’s like the runner’s high,” adds Hosseini. “You crave more. You get in a flow and you don’t want to get out.”

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