A rowing team cutting through the water
Mental health

Can water sports boost self-esteem and happiness while reducing anxiety?

By Linz Fitzpatrick, MSc Psychology Online Conversion student, University of Derby

01 September 2022

The emergence of Covid-19 brought about necessary restrictions to keep people from mixing and reduce the spread of the disease. An unfortunate consequence of social distancing was increased levels of uncertainty and negative impacts on individuals' mental health and wellbeing. In an effort to escape the confines of lockdowns and alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression, many people were drawn to trying out new outdoor activities, especially water sports such as paddle boarding, kayaking, wing foiling and swimming, which they could participate in alone. This was reflected in the surge in sales of water sports equipment during the pandemic.

The use of outdoor activities as an intervention in the US is known with outdoor activity summer camps and outdoor interventions a popular choice to support emotional development, resilience, self-esteem, and anxiety; however, its recognition and research in the UK are not as prominent. In light of the vast anecdotal evidence to suggest that getting outdoors and connecting with nature improved wellbeing during the pandemic, mental health professionals including GPs and counsellors have been focusing their attention on how outdoor adventure activities can be used as positive psychological interventions in a bid to alleviate mental health concerns.

I have been involved in the water sports industry for 13 years and have seen first-hand the beneficial impact these activities have had therefore I was particularly interested in exploring this area for my MSc research project. I am currently finishing my research project under the supervision of Dr Charlotte Scott at the University of Derby. The aim of the study was to explore the association between the frequency of water sports engagement and indices of wellbeing. Self-esteem, anxiety and happiness were chosen.

It was hypothesised that the more frequently a person participated in water sports, the higher their levels of self-esteem and happiness and the lower their levels of anxiety would be. A further aim was to explore whether there are any gender differences in the beneficial impact of water sport participation on wellbeing, given that males are far more likely than females to engage in water sports. To take part, participants had to be aged 18+, based in the UK and regularly engaged in water sports. A total of 113 participants representing 15 different water sports were included. Participants averaged 5 hours of water sport a week with the most common being kayaking (24 per cent).

Results indicated that while increased water sport participation did not result in increased self-esteem, it was associated with increased happiness and reduced anxiety in line with expectations. The strength of these relationships was the same for both males and females (i.e. gender was not found to play a moderating role).

This study has provided an exciting insight into the positive relationships between the frequency of water sports engagement and wellbeing. The findings add further weight to anecdotal evidence concerning the benefits of such activities. Mental health professionals should consider prescribing the ‘great outdoors’ to clients, encouraging them to try something new and to connect with nature. Future research should explore what further wellbeing benefits participation in outdoor adventurous activities may bring and unpack what it is about water sports in particular that have such a positive impact.

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