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Surfing Under The Microscope In Cal State San Marcos Study

Evening Edition

Above: For surfers, nothing else compares to the feeling of catching a wave. That’s one of the reasons why enthusiasts surf as often as they can. But researchers at Cal State San Marcos are trying to find out whether surfing is also a good physical workout. KPBS health reporter Kenny Goldberg says the study is the first of its kind to examine recreational surfing.

Katie Schoolov

Ross Edmunds simulates paddling in the Cal State San Marcos biomechanics lab. It's part of a study that aims to find out whether recreational surfing is a strenuous exercise.

Aired 5/15/14 on KPBS News.

Researchers at Cal State San Marcos are trying to find out whether surfing is a good physical workout.

When Jamie Gonzalez goes surfing, she likes to do things in a particular order.

First, she puts on her wetsuit. Then she waxes her board.

And on a recent Thursday morning, before she hits the water at Cardiff Reef Beach, she’ll add some other things to the mix.

Cal State San Marcos kinesiology students Makenzie Stade and Alyzza DeMesa give Gonzalez a hand.

“Makenzie’s going to hook you up with the heart rate monitor, and I’m going to hook you up with the watch. This will tell you your heart rate in the water,“ DeMesa said.

Gonzalez is taking part in a new study from Cal State San Marcos. The study hopes to measure whether recreational surfing is an effective cardiovascular exercise.

Stade and DeMesa give Gonzalez a bright yellow T-shirt, so she'll be easier to spot in the water.

And then, she’s off to catch some waves.

Surfing involves a number of distinct activities, including: walking into the water, paddling, waiting for a wave, and riding one.

While Gonzalez is in the water, her heart rate is being recorded every five seconds. All of her moves are being captured on video, too.

Later on, the data will be paired with the video and entered into a database.

DeMesa and her fellow students are out on the beach nearly every weekday morning. They recruit surfers for the study, and conduct some of the research.

“I think it’s amazing, because being an undergrad, you get to be involved in research," DeMesa said. "And living in San Diego, where surfing’s a real popular sport, not much research has been done on it. We’re finding out new things.”

Some of those new things are being explored in Cal State San Marcos’s biomechanics lab.

Surfer and kinesiology student Ross Edmunds is today’s guinea pig. Classmates Austin Reaves and Daniel Pitt run the test.

“Alright, Ross, we’re gonna put the mask on you right here," Reaves said. "It’s where we do our tests for VO2. If you could just hold that up while we strap you in….”

Edmunds lies on a surfboard, and students attach his hands to a couple of pulleys that provide some resistance.

Reaves counts him down.

“Three, two, one. Alright, begin paddling at 50 watts for us, Ross.”

As Edmunds simulates paddling in the water, the computer measures his oxygen use and upper body muscular power.

At certain intervals, Edmunds picks up the pace.

“Give us 70 watts. Nice job, there you go, Ross," Reaves said.

Eventually, Edmunds goes all out.

“Keep pushing! 83 watts, keep digging. Big set. Keep going, keep going!" Reaves and Pitt shouted.

Edmunds finally stops, and his mates remove the mask.

Reaves said this test has never been done on recreational surfers.

“So we’re trying to figure out whether a day out in the water for recreational surfers is actually equivalent to individuals who go to the gym, and run, or lift weights," he explained. "And some don’t think surfing is a viable form of exercise. But, the tests that we’re running, we’re able to figure that out.”

The surfing study is the brainchild of Sean Newcomber, an assistant professor of Kinesiology.

He grew up in Cardiff, and has been surfing since he was a kid.

Newcomber said his study is doing more than measuring whether surfers get an aerobic workout.

“We also want to know if it has implications for their balance," Newcomber said. "We also want to know if it increases the risk of certain injuries, joint injuries. So we’re trying to get a global perspective of the health implications of surfing.”

Newcomber pointed out previous research has studied professional surfers in their 20s. In contrast, his study is looking at surfers of all ages.

“Going from high school kids, ‘cause we’re doing some work in high school physical education classes, all the way up to 70 years old," he said.

The study is also the first of its kind to include female surfers.

Jeff Nessler chairs Cal State’s department of kinesiology. He said researchers are using a lot of high-tech tools.

For example, they’ve attached reflective markers to surfers, and filmed them with an array of special cameras. The result is a computer simulation that allows researchers to get down to a much finer detail.

“We’re currently looking at differences of paddling motion, with and without a wetsuit on," Nessler explained. "So we want to see if a wetsuit causes fatigue sooner, if it changes the paddling motion, so would someone be more at risk for injury if they’re wearing a wetsuit, or if they’re wearing a different kind of wetsuit.”

The study is scheduled to last for three years. Until the research is published, the jury will be out on how strenuous recreational surfing truly is.

But Ross Edmunds said to hard-core surfers, it really doesn’t matter.

“I think it’s more for fun, and enjoyment, and personal satisfaction," Edmunds said. "If it’s a form of exercise, as well, then that’s even better.”

Ninety surfers have taken part in the study since it was launched last September. The goal is to get 600 surfers involved.

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