Taking Care of Mental Health Through Water Recreation
health & fitness

Taking Care of Mental Health Through Water Recreation

You’ve probably noticed that ice baths, saunas, cold water exposure, paddling and surfing during the winter months are becoming quite trendy these days, and believe it or not there’s a fascinating reason for that. The research surrounding each of these topics primarily discusses that these activities are beneficial to not only our physical health but also our mental health. Each of these forms of leisure helps enhance the circulation of blood, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces inflammatory stress, and improves cognitive function (1). These facts are just the beginning of what we know about cold water exposure as many scholars acknowledge that more research is still needed to better understand scientific evidence of the benefits of cold water exposure. Other research that has been made apparent in the past decade is the concept of Blue Mind (2). It demonstrates that participation in outdoor recreation in blue spaces such as the Great Lakes and beyond can reduce anxiety, and relieve stress, which is quite important for our overall health and promotes higher levels of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, and adrenaline. Nichols suggests that water environments can be places of learning, healing and growing (3). As a small business and as Canada’s surf brand, we stand behind the current research and cold water community. Here are just a few of our favourite forms of outdoor water recreation that contribute to our mental health during the long cold months of the year. 


Of course surfing is at the top of our list! You don’t have to travel somewhere warm and tropical this winter (even though I will admit it is fun to travel south), but you can surf right here in your own backyard! Winter is the best time of year to begin surfing on the Great Lakes because the waves we ride here are produced by wind swell. November to the beginning of May are usually the best months to surf since that is when we have the most amount of wind, and low pressure systems that produce ocean-like quality waves. For your cold water surfing journey you will need a wetsuit (5/4 recommended), booties, gloves/mittens, and of course a surfboard! To learn more about the cold water gear you need to surf you can learn more here. To learn more about how to get in and out of the water safely you can read more about tips from our founder Antonio here. And lastly, to learn more about the mental health benefits of surfing you can read more here

Stand Up Paddling 

As a professional stand up paddle boarder, I personally love paddling during the winter months which oftentimes is highly underrated. I find a lot of solitude and peace paddling alone or with friends on a cold crispy morning. The air is fresh, the water is calm and clear. A long time ago I had a paddling coach tell me that when you look down below you and see the bottom of the lake as clear as day on the Great Lakes, that's when you know the water is REALLY cold! There is also usually something so picturesque about looking at the snow covering everything while you paddle and are cozy and warm in your dry suit. It is highly recommended you paddle with booties and mitts/gloves, but make sure (if you can and your budget allows for it) to substitute the wetsuit for a dry suit. This is because when you fall in a dry suit mostly keeps water out and your clothes dry which keeps you warm for a longer period. A wetsuit allows water into the suit, and your body heat warms up the water that has been trapped inside of the suit. It's harder for a wetsuit to function properly when you’re stand-up paddling because the cold air exposure doesn’t help trap body heat as efficiently as a drysuit after you have fallen in and got back up on your board. Therefore for fun and safety's sake, make sure you invest in the proper gear before you venture out into the cold! To learn more about stand-up paddling in the winter you can connect with our expert Jordan-na here

Cold Water Exposure

Every year at Surf the Greats we host an event in combination with Jack.org called ‘Brainfreeze’. Through this event we raise funds for mental health all while putting a spotlight on the physical and mental benefits of jumping into a freezing cold lake. As mentioned before, we stand behind the benefits of cold water. This year we went a step further with our event and partnered with Othership - a health and wellness company that believes learning to regulate yourself and your emotions in a world that can't be regulated can and should be a memorable voyage - maybe even an adventure. Othership is building the future of emotional wellness by offering journeyers an immersive and social sauna and ice bath experience. Through their core values by providing a sense of awe, cellular commitment, and building belonging they use the power of cold water to help others transform their mind, body and soul. Through guided meditations, visualization techniques, and empathetic teachers, Othership makes cold water exposure fun and an enjoyable experience for all no matter who you are and where you come from. Whether you’re an ice bath expert or curious to see what all the hype is about, Othership will welcome you with open arms and we can guarantee it will be a great experience to try this new year!

Cold Water Swimming

If you were curious to take your cold water exposure a step further, there are many community groups including our friends at Swim OP (Swim at Ontario Place) that encourage and educate others how to swim during the winter months safely. Other goals of the group are to promote safe swimming in downtown Toronto in service of PAM (Physical, Affective, and Mental) health, do advocacy work to keep downtown Toronto's only beach accessible to all people at all times of the year, beach cleanups assisted by underwater VR (virtual reality), and VR mapping of the beach to improve safety and situational awareness. Additionally the group assists persons using a computational seeing aid or computer vision system to help improve safety in navigating and wayfinding, scientific data collection on water and water quality. There’s approximately 1,800 members on the facebook group page, and a regular crew that swims at Ontario Place in Toronto on the weekends. The founder of the group Steve Mann welcomes all individuals to challenge themselves and enjoy a cold water swim! He has personally mentioned to us before that “the benefits of cold water swimming are tremendous and keep our bodies healthy and strong”. You can join the Facebook group to introduce yourself and swim with the group at Teachbeach, by Ontario Place.

Essentially, there are many ways to have fun in cold water inside and outside during the next few cold winter months that can light up your mind during the dark days of winter. In each of these activities, we guarantee that you can find connection, community, and a sense of well-being should you choose to participate.


Words by Maddi Leblanc. Photos by D Weare, Steve Mann, Till Dalling, Kristapp Ungurs.

Madeline Leblanc Portrait 

Maddi Leblanc is a Niagara born, Toronto-based stand up paddling athlete for Team Canada, SUP instructor, and lake surfer. Maddi is also the Surf School DIrector at Surf the Greats. She has been paddle boarding for nine years, competing in SUP for six years, and surfing the Great Lakes for six years. She recently just completed her Masters at Brock University in Recreation & Leisure Studies. Find her on Instagram.