Can paddleboarding keep you young?

Being out on the water during a summer day is hard to beat, but when you add the long-term health benefits of balance, cognitive strength and mental stability, paddleboarding may be the new activity for you.
May 3, 2024
woman paddleboarding with her dog on a lake.
Paddleboarding is great for your mental and physical health. Photo: Getty Images.

It’s no wonder that paddle sports draw people to the water. The rhythm of your strokes as you glide across the water, whether in a kayak, canoe or on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), is as therapeutic as the nature around you.

It’s no secret that in Colorado and elsewhere, the popularity of stand-up paddleboarding has soared. The sport attracts people of all abilities and ages; some relax on a board while catching up with friends, others do yoga on a board, while others compete in paddleboard racing.

Equipment is minimal — life jacket, board, paddle — and fairly inexpensive compared to other sports, such as rafting or downhill skiing. Some municipalities have created designated paddle board areas on lakes to accommodate enthusiasts.

Paddleboarders take to the north end of Horsetooth Reservoir, an area recently designated just for paddle sports. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Paddleboarders take to the north end of Horsetooth Reservoir, an area designated in 2021 just for paddle sports. Photos by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Paddleboarding helps relax the mind, can take you to your “happy place” and may even help to strengthen cognitive skills that may weaken through the years.

Rachel Williamson, a physical therapist at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies who enjoys paddleboarding, explains why the sport is not only beneficial for you now, but may help you in the years to come.

But before we get there, let’s talk about safety and the rules of Colorado’s boatable waters.

Safety first

It’s your responsibility to be safe on any of Colorado’s boatable waters by knowing your skill level and being prepared. Understand the rules, especially when you are sharing the space with motorized recreation.

Here is a quick reference guide to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife boating rules:

  • A stand-up paddleboard is considered a “vessel” by Colorado law, the same as a canoe or kayak.
  • There must be a United States Coast Guard-approved wearable lifejacket for every person on the SUP.
  • A sound-producing device, such as a whistle, is required to be on the vessel or worn by an individual on the vessel.
  • All persons under the age of 13 must wear their lifejacket at all times while on a SUP.
  • Because SUP is hand-launched it can be launched without an aquatic nuisance species (ANS) inspection as long as a trailer never enters the water.
  • A SUP is a hand-powered craft and therefore does not need to be registered.
  • SUP is required to have the owner’s contact information onboard to include the owner’s name and address.
  • People are allowed to be on a SUP at night as long as the SUP has an all-around white light visible for 360 degrees.

Other tips for heading out on the water:

  • Law requires you to have a life jacket with you, so why not wear it.
  • Go with at least one other person.
  • Check the weather forecast before you head out. You never want to be on the water during lightning and wind can make it hard to get back to shore.
  • Apply sunscreen SPF 30 or higher at least 30 minutes before you head out into the sun. And don’t forget to reapply at least every two hours.
  • Alcohol and drugs impair your judgment and slow your reflexes. (One study shows alcohol may lessen your ability to protect yourself from harmful UV). Sober is always safest.
  • Never take glass on the water. It breaks easily and makes it dangerous for those who are trying to enjoy the waterways. And for everything else, if you pack it in, pack it out.

Paddleboarding helps with balance

Anyone who has ever tried to stand on a paddleboard understands that it takes balance (and the right fitting board).

“You have to use all those stabilizer muscles you don’t often use daily,” Williamson said. “You’re not standing on solid ground — it’s unpredictable.”

We get our balance from three places: our inner ear, our ability to see and the bottom of our feet. Stand-up paddleboarding uses all three, she said.

Friends Maryann Goyn, left, and Alison Holloran, take to their paddleboards for some girl time at Horsetooth Reservoir. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Friends Maryann Goyn, left, and Alison Holloran, take to their paddleboards for some girl time at Horsetooth Reservoir in June 2021. 

Why is balance so important?

“Kids are constantly playing, spinning; they are challenging that inner ear-brain connection, which gives the body an idea of where it is in space,” Williamson said. “As people move out of their 20s and are no longer doing regular sports and activities, they challenge this connection less. If we don’t challenge it when we are getting into our 40s and 50s, then it’s even harder when we get into our 60s and 70s. We must continue to do things that challenge our balance as a way to look into the future and prevent falls.

“As we say in physical therapy, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Paddleboarding helps with core strength

“Core is where everything stems from,” Williamson said. “It is our body’s strong base.”

Paddleboarding provides a deep transverse abdominal workout, the muscles below your oblique muscles, she explained.

“Back pain is a huge issue for a lot of people and not engaging the core well is often one of the major culprits of aches and pains,” Williamson said. “You may not get a six-pack (abs) from paddleboarding but you will strengthen those deep transverse abdominal muscles which act as your body’s natural back brace.”

In June 2021, Alison Holloran was paddleboarding with her friend, Maryann Goyn, on Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins. As a Pilates instructor, Holloran said she sees many of the same benefits in paddleboarding as she does in Pilates.

“It’s all core and balance,” she said, as she did a few Pilates moves on her board for a more intense workout.

Alison Holloran, a Pilates instructor, does some moves while paddleboarding on Horsetooth Reservoir recently. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Alison Holloran, a Pilates instructor, does some moves while paddleboarding on Horsetooth Reservoir in June 2021.

Paddleboarding helps with coordination

Most people have a favorite side when they engage in stand-up paddleboarding, usually using their dominant hand. But you must paddle on both sides of the board to get anywhere.

“You switch sides, you change your hand positions and, probably without realizing, you shift your weight or feet to the other side,” Williamson said. “Having to do that physical task can be a lot harder than you may give it credit for, although it does come more naturally after you’ve done it for a while. Then maybe you get a wave or put your foot too close to the edge of the board, you have to work a bit to regain that center of gravity and you have to coordinate all those pieces.”

Coordinating all those pieces requires “dual-tasking,” which also helps sharpen the mind.

As a physical therapist, Williamson often uses dual-tasking — completing a physical and mental task at the same time — to key her into small deficits that wouldn’t be noticed otherwise. For example, she may have them walk across the room holding a glass of water (two fairly simple physical activities) while counting backward from 100 (the mental activity).

Having to think about what you’re doing while doing a physical activity helps your critical thinking skills. Just like balance, we need to be practicing dual-tasking regularly.

“If we don’t challenge the brain, we will start to backslide,” Williamson said. “That’s why doing crosswords helps keep the brain sharp. When we stop challenging, the cognitive deficits start to show. We need to continue to challenge our body and brain for preventative care later in life.”

Paddleboarding helps with long-term mental stability

As a physical therapist, Williamson said, she notices people rarely “stop and be mindful of their body and take a true break of their conscience.”

“It’s a lost art,” she said. “But that’s what keeps our body in a parasympathetic state rather than a sympathetic state.”

The parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” side that keeps the basic function of our body working as it should. While the sympathetic nervous system is the “flight or fight” side that kicks in during dangerous or stressful situations.

“When we are stressed, our sympathetic system helps our body address the stress and parasympathetic helps us return to normal,” Williamson said.

Chronic stress can keep us in the sympathetic state, which has a higher state of inflammation. An “inflammatory soup,” she calls it, surrounds the nerves and therefore pain is felt more readily because it’s already chronically irritated.

Paddleboarding, she finds, helps the body switch to that rest, relax and recover parasympathetic state.

“When I get on top of a paddleboard, I take a deep breath and let myself glide along the water,” Williamson said. “I’m not out to race anyone. There is something therapeutic about the water, being out there, having space to breathe, relatively alone or with friends also in that same state. It is beneficial to slow down, take a moment to be at peace and breath a bit before we jump back into our crazy lives.”

That peace, which fairly new paddleboarder Nathaniel Mills found out, can come from a sunny day on his board — or even a rainy one.

His first time on a paddleboard was in 2020 and he said, “It was raining, and to see those drops on the water was like being one with nature.”

Mills, who was stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne when he came to paddleboard at Horsetooth Reservoir with two comrades for the day in June 2021, may have been getting more from his paddle strokes and the beat of the rain than he realized.

Williamson said that therapists often use relaxing rhythmic motions — like tossing a ball back and forth while talking to someone — to help people switch over to that parasympathetic state from a sympathetic state caused by a specific trauma. It’s similar to the benefits of yoga or tai chi. She said that rhythmic movement helps make that neuroconnection for the brain to process difficult things.

Paddleboarding is an activity you can do at any skill level and at any age

Rick Felton and his granddaughter, Avery, enjoy an afternoon paddleboarding at Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins, Colorado. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Rick Felton, paddleboarding with his granddaughter, Avery, at Horsetooth Reservoir in June 2021. 

When interviewed in July 2021, Rick Felton, a retired oral surgeon, said that he became passionate about paddleboarding as his physical ability to participate in high-impact activates waned. He said he used to run, but then used paddleboarding and cycling to keep toned and his body healthy. For a bit more of a challenge, he invites his granddaughter to join him on the front of the SUP as he stands and paddles across the lake.

“A day on the water anywhere is a good day indeed,” he said.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.