Buffalo Grove physical therapist Gopal Raghunath and his wife tried stand-up paddle boarding for the first time 3 years ago during a trip to Maui. Not only was he quickly hooked on the sport, but he immediately identified a host of health benefits that make the activity unique among other leisurely water sports.

“Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) is a fun, warm-weather sport that not only young or middle-aged people can enjoy, but active older individuals, as well,” said Dr. Raghunath, PT MS, DPT, CSCS, owner/clinic director of Buffalo Grove Physical Therapy & Sports Rehabilitation, P.C. “It improves balance, coordination and core stability, thereby creating a positive carryover to everyday activities, while reducing the risk of falls and fractures for older adults.”

Stand-up paddle boarding originated in sections of Peru and French Polynesia as a means of transportation and was modernized in Hawaii as an offshoot of surfing. Within the last 5 to 6 years, it has gained traction and popularity in the mainland U.S., particularly on the West Coast.

“Rather than riding big waves, boarders simply use a paddle to propel themselves through generally calm waters,” Raghunath said. “Moreover, once your skill level improves, you can be on the water for hours and not realize you’re exercising or burning calories.”

Key fitness benefits of stand-up paddle boarding

It engages your core muscle stability. Paddling in a reciprocal, chopping pattern while in a standing position engages your trunk stabilizers while challenging your balance.

It improves balance. Maintaining your body’s symmetry and equilibrium against varying water currents improves proprioceptive/kinesthetic awareness, which in turn minimizes risk of falls and fractures particularly in the aging population.

It’s low-impact on the joints. As a water-based activity, stand-up paddle boarding does not impart jarring forces on your joints. Additionally, because it’s a weight-bearing activity, it helps maintain healthy bone mineral density to combat osteopenia/osteoporosis.

It’s an effective cross-trainer. Stand-up paddle boarding engages the entire body, which is vital to optimal performance of daily, leisure and sporting activities. And, if performed vigorously for a sustained period, it can also build cardiopulmonary conditioning as well as relieve stress and defend against stroke, hypertension and heart disease.

“Ultimately, the goal is to stand up, paddle and effectively maneuver your board through varying water conditions. However, there are some lead-up stages within the activity itself, to gain more acumen and expertise, such as learning how to paddle on your knees, smoothly transitioning from your knees to a standing position and vice versa, and being able to get back on your board if you fall, in an energy-efficient manner,” says Dr. Raghunath.

“Even as a beginner, the injury risk is very low. If you fall, you fall in water, which makes for a refreshing swim!” Stand-up paddle boarding provides benefits to one’s balance, stability and coordination so uniquely distinct that Dr. Raghunath employs the use of a training board in his clinic, under which balance discs are carefully positioned, to help acclimate beginners to the sport and provide innovative conditioning strategies for the seasoned paddler.

Dr. Raghunath recommends beginners to undergo a comprehensive functional movement screen prior to getting on the board, to help analyze existing patterns and identify any balance, mobility and stability deficits. The Buffalo Grove Physical Therapy & Sports Rehabilitation team will use the results from the movement screen to customize a program to help address these deficiencies and optimize performance.