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The power of surfing in brain injury rehab

A new study has revealed the wellbeing benefits to ABI survivors of surf therapy

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The positive impact of surfing among people with acquired brain injury (ABI) has been revealed through a new study. 

Scientists at Swansea University have been collaborating with clinicians from Swansea Bay University Health Board and Hywel Dda University Health Board to look at how health and wellbeing can support people living with impairment after ABI. 

And through the use of group-based surf therapy on the Gower coast, the team found the benefits it could deliver in a neuro-rehabilitation context. 

Through a partnership with Surfability UK – a Gower-based community interest company which specialises in providing surfing experiences for people with additional needs – the benefit to survivors’ lives has become tangible. 

Since teaming up around three years ago, up to 50 stroke and brain injury survivors have enjoyed two-hour surfing session for up to five-week periods.

In interviews conducted with 15 of those individuals, lead researcher Katie Gibbs and the team learned just how life-changing the experience had been.

She said: “Over and above everything else we found surfing nourished the belief that despite ‘being a bit broken in some places’ participants could experience wellbeing.

“Many said their experience gave them a ‘valid reason for being alive’.”

The research looked at the positive changes the participants experienced over those five weeks and beyond, where they enjoyed the benefits of being in nature and connecting to the present moment in a safe and supportive environment.

The group activity also meant they could connect with similar others, gaining a sense of belonging and community that they struggled to experience elsewhere. 

Within this community they began to reappraise themselves and what they were capable of, with help from the clinicians who worked with them to set meaningful goals.

Katie added: “Our themes capture how immersing individuals in natural environments can provide the context for stroke and brain injury survivors to experience various pillars of wellbeing which they are often sorely lacking in.”

For people living with ABI, in addition to having emotional, cognitive, and physical difficulties, many feel isolated and unable to reintegrate into their communities.

Many have difficulty returning to work or engaging in the leisure activities they once enjoyed, which in turn means opportunities for social connection, joy, meaning, and purpose are limited.

To address this, clinicians looked for diverse ways to give people with stroke and brain injury opportunities to experience wellbeing in their local and natural environments. 

“Nature has long demonstrated the capacity to facilitate wellbeing,” said Katie. 

“Increasingly, interventions involving the natural environment are used to help aspects of wellbeing in clinical populations.

“But we wanted to find out how nature-based interventions such as surf therapy could be used when it comes to promoting wellbeing in the context of neurorehabilitation.”

Katie and her colleagues from the School of Psychology interviewed 15 adults with ABI following a five-week intervention where they worked with.

“We know physical health and psychological wellbeing are influenced by many things including healthy eating, sleeping well, or physical exercise,” said Katie. 

“But our health and wellbeing are also influenced by whether we gain a sense of meaning, purpose, and achievement in our lives; whether we have a sense of belonging and it can even be dependent upon how connected we feel to our natural environments.”

For her research, Katie has been working with Professor Andrew Kemp and Dr Zoe Fisher who have previously published research on the importance of taking a wider approach to wellbeing and considering how it can be influenced by the surroundings within which we live.

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