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Healthy Community Healthy You: Surf's Up – How did riding the waves come to be?

Dr. Megan Johnson McCullough

Special to the Village News

Living in sunny Southern California, surfing is an activity we associate with our local beaches. Surfing's origins come from Polynesia several centuries ago. In Polynesia it wasn't just a hobby or sport, rather, surfing actually had religious affiliations and wasn't exactly "chill" or "laid back." Surfing was used to train Tahitians and Samoans for battle.

Polynesians brought surfing to Hawaii. In Hawaii, surfing took off becoming extremely popular. The locals fell in love with it and tourism sparked. "The Duke" (Duke Kahanamoku) was one of the best surfers during the early 1900s and was an Olympic swimmer. He popularized the sport traveling from California to Australia drawing attention to his talent in the water.

Some credit The Duke with inventing surfing. He definitely can be credited for building the legacy of surfing. Now, he is referred to as "The Father of Surfing."

European settlers coming to Hawaii actually oppressed surfing and highly discouraged the sport. In Hawaiian culture, the word "surf" means "sliding on a wave." The early Polynesian culture had a big discrepancy between upper and lower class to the extent that this influenced where exactly certain classes were allowed to surf.

The rules of society were called the "code of kapu." This code even dictated how long a person's surfboard could be. Commoners were never banned from surfing but weren't left with the greatest locations or best conditions. These codes don't apply today, but at that time, the lower class was able to earn respect from the upper class by demonstrating their surfing abilities including strength, mastery of the waves, and various skills.

The kapu did also instruct how surf boards could be made at the time. Making a surfboard was a sacred undertaking. The only wood Hawaiians chose were from three types of trees: koa, 'ulu, and wiliwili. To obtain this wood, the surfer would dig out the type of tree and put fish in the hole that was left to serve as a spiritual offering.

Boards weighed up to 175 pounds, so they were not easy to transport. Long boards were for the upper class and shorter boards were for the lower class. Therefore, most surfers were also good at woodworking.

The 19th century is known as the "dark era" of surfing. It never went away entirely, and popularity really rose during the 1960s when groups like the Beach Boys included surfing in their songs.

The West Coast became known for its surfing culture. Today, anyone can surf anywhere that is permitted and most boards are much lighter, being made out of polyurethane or polystyrene foam.

Surfing can be a great hobby, sport, or even workout. The abdominals are used for core and stabilization while standing on the board which is an unpredictable, unstable surface. This is called proprioception.

Other muscles used include the shoulders (including the deltoids and rotator cuff), the triceps (back of the arms), and chest (pecs), all to push yourself up into the standing position. Even the back is being used to include the latissimus dorsi (lower back), trapezius (upper back), and rhomboids (upper back).

While standing, the legs are staying strong in the stance. For this, the glutes, quads, and hamstrings, are all engaged. You want to feel strong and light on the board, so resistance training and keeping a healthy body weight are recommended for optimal performance. This can also help with injury prevention.

If not using proper form or overcompensating for certain weaknesses of the body, the low back tends to be the one to suffer. What you do to improve surfing out of the water can be just as important as what you practice in the water. Pushups, squats, sit-ups, and planks are great ways to work on your surf game even at home and just with your bodyweight.

Surf's up, to keep active and healthy.

Megan Johnson McCullough, EdD, recently earned her doctorate in physical education and health science, is a professional natural bodybuilder and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine master trainer.


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