How to Paddle Board Your Way to Better Mental Health

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Paddling in the spring run‑off helps Ottawa writer Dan Rubinstein find focus and balance.

On a sunny early‑spring afternoon, the swollen Rideau River cascades over a limestone shelf not far from my home in Ottawa. The current roils and kicks up waves, and the occasional chunk of ice rushes past. It’s the type of place where parents raise their voices above the roaring rapids, warning kids to stay back. Yet I’m on the shoreline pumping up my inflatable stand‑up paddle board, eager to feel the flow.

May 4, 2021
A photo of Dan Rubinstein paddleboarding on an Ottawa river

A year ago, when I did one of these hour‑long 11‑kilometre runs down the Rideau from Carleton University to a placid takeout spot just before it plunges into the Ottawa River, we were on high alert about Covid‑19. Outdoor recreation was deemed essential, but with a mysterious virus in the air, it was prudent to keep away from other people. Paddling atop frigid, fast‑moving water was not exactly a popular pursuit.

But as long as you’re safety‑conscious and experienced – wear a wetsuit or drysuit, a PFD and a helmet, use a quick‑release leash, know the route and its risks – whitewater is not inherently dangerous. During this pandemic, in fact, when taking care of our health has acquired new‑found significance, a growing array of research is showing that spending time in “blue space” (basically on, in or around water) has benefits that run deep.

A photo of Dan Rubinstein paddleboarding on an Ottawa river

I hop onto my board and push off from shore. The freshet sends me hurtling downstream. Knees loose, I paddle steadily, not for propulsion but to maintain contact with the water and enhance my balance. People tend to be more active when they’re near an ocean, lake or river, say blue‑space researchers, and every extra minute of motion is good for our bodies – and for our brains. The sights and sounds of aquatic environments hold our attention in an involuntary, effortless way; they also give us a sense of “extent” – a distant horizon we’re drawn toward – and of being away on a journey, an escape from habitual activities. All of this triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, a mind‑body response that’s relaxing and restorative.

Summer paddling is carefree and glorious, but I stay on my SUP throughout the year, slicing through snow squalls and nosing into the river’s icy shallows. Submitting to an elemental waterborne rhythm, I emerge replenished and ready for any turbulence ahead.