- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — The waves are flat at Ocean Beach, but Brian Bennett paddles out anyway. For Mr. Bennett, a surfer of 20 years, it doesn’t matter that he might not catch a single wave on this crisp sunny afternoon with no other surfers in sight. Surfing is what the 34-year-old ad salesman does for exercise.

“It’s good to feel the electricity in the water,” he says. “It’s like taking a couple energy drinks. I’m up, I’m alert, and I’m a happier person.”

It’s not just the meditative mind trip that gets surfers in the water. Some die-hards are loath to admit it, but the sport’s health benefits are many: sinewy shoulders, washboard abs, improved cardiovascular health.

Dedicated surfers accidentally build physiques for which health-club acolytes would trade their memberships.

For most surfers, though, the reason for surfing is surfing itself, says Dr. Mark Renneker, an associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Renneker, 54, should know: He is a renowned big-wave rider himself.

“It’s not a sport to them at all. It’s a way of life,” he says. “You can’t find anything that makes you as healthy.”

Dr. Renneker frequently recommends surfing to non-surfers to treat high blood pressure, repetitive strain injuries and chemical addictions.

But the biggest benefit, he says, is cardiovascular.

Dr. Renneker says a surfer’s heart rate can recover from intense activity as quickly as that of a triathlete, because of the focus on controlled breathing. He says asthmatics also have experienced improved respiratory functioning, and the sport’s meditative effects can reduce stress even in the most anxious patients.

“It really is leaving the world, as it were, on land, and losing yourself in the rhythms of the ocean,” he says. “And that has been the draw of surfing since the beginning. And then to have a really physical training … to really progress, you have to surf three times a week.”

But it also can be dangerous.

Lance Harriman, 36, a surfer of nearly three decades and a San Francisco physical therapist, says top riders often limp into his practice with blown-out knees, shoulders and ankles.

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