Paddle for Stress: It’s SUPrisingly Easy

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This morning I left the hospital for the first time in 49 hours 30 minutes and 27 seconds, not that I’m counting. Sleeping in the call room between busy Emergency Department shifts, attending lectures—even having an interview—I hadn’t seen the light of day except through windows in patient rooms for two sunrises and two sunsets.

I walked out to my car through the bright summer sun, rummaged through energy bar wrappers to find my keys and drove to the nearest body of water, topped off my SUP, switched out my clogs for flip-flops and hopped on the water. Sigh… An hour of paddling and real sunshine and finally I felt at least a bit saner again. Hospitals can be intense and sad places. Sickness and death fill my work shifts all too often. It’s easy to get swept up in the drama and stress of this setting. Getting outside helps keep me grounded and reminds me of why I want to be a doctor, to help people heal so that they too can go find their joy in life like I find mine on the water.

Prior to moving to Boston to hop on the no-sleep-stress-train of medical school, I spent summers guiding in Idaho, living in Stanley and working/playing on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The seasonal cycle of river flows, camping under the stars and waking every morning next to flowing water defined my life. When the season closed, I would head south to Crested Butte, Colorado and play in the snow waiting for spring runoff. My favorite trips involved being in a boat all day, watching the sun rise and set while floating on the water.

Moving to the concrete forest of a New England city, first felt as if the cam strap of connection to rivers and mountains had been cut. SUPing has helped me remember my connection to water during medical school, clinical rotations, all day exams and sad situations with patients. Now, this connection to water is even more important to me than when I lived on the river every day. Water helps me wash off the stress of adulting; it gives me a fresh start to jump into daily challenges and it brings me joy that no other ‘self-care’ activity can. I’ve learned there’s always time and there’s pretty much always water, if you get creative, and don’t mind showing up to work un-showered.

This is true for most busy lifestyles. Whether you’re working the grind in Manhattan or Atlanta, Seattle or Chicago, if you take the time to plan for the days you can’t plan, then you’ll always be ready to ditch the office and hit the water. And believe me, it’s worth it. Here’s what I’ve learned to help increase the probability that I get a paddling session in after (or before) a long slog at work.

Let go of expectations: The first time I took my board out after a long shift it took me 15 minutes to pump it up and I maybe paddled for 15 more. As I strapped the board to the top of my car I couldn’t help but ask myself if it was worth it. Coming from a background of long days spent on the water, I had to give my expectations a reality check. Sure, some days you go on 20-hour missions, with miles of whitewater, aching muscles and you push past limits. And, some days life has already pushed your limits and you just need 20 minutes of paddling to ease your aching brain. Go for it. Just because it’s not epic does not lower the value. Anytime you get on the water for any amount of time it makes a difference. And as we all know, stress sucks. So shut stress down, go stand on a SUP.

Don’t clean up: Picture this—you’re halfway through your shift and you get a second wind. You think to yourself, I’m going to the gym after work. Or, I’m taking the dog on a long run. Or [insert ambitious post-work activity here]. And then, you get in your car, navigate your way home to grab your gym bag, or the dog, and the moment you step through your front door, you’re done. Instead of gym clothes, you grab an oversized sweatshirt and before you know it, it’s time for bed. You go to sleep with the stress still clinging to you and you wake up the next day and do it again. Leave your gear in your car! SUP, pump, paddle, PFD. Really, if you always have them then the excuses of having to go get gear disappears. I’ve had rotations all over New England this year. The only constants in packing have been a toothbrush, gear and food. And if you leave them in your car as opposed to pulling it all out to unroll and dry then the dread of “clean-up” won’t affect your decision to paddle or not. Embrace your inner teenager and don’t clean up and put your gear away.

Snacks for Survival: There are two types of survival to mention. There’s the pre-paddle survival, where you really want to jump-start your workday with a paddle but you overslept and have to weigh the importance of paddling versus eating breakfast. And then there’s post-work survival when you’re running on cafeteria fumes, you’re pretty sure your stomach is devouring itself from the inside out but you still really want to paddle. I always have at least two snacks tucked into my PFD pocket. The key is to remember to restock. There’s also the case that you woke up with plenty of time but you end up enjoying your paddle and staying out for that extra 10 minutes cutting into your ‘go grab breakfast time.’ The bottom line: carry your calories with you, always. I’ve taken to leaving a jar of PB in my car just in case. Hanger is no fun for anyone.

Set your alarm: So you’re exhausted, you’re going to bed, the weather is supposed to be beautiful tomorrow but you’re already thinking about that extra half hour of sleep in the morning. Suck it up and set your alarm early. You can always press snooze but give your morning self the option to go outside and get on the water. You will never regret getting to see the sunrise. Sometimes the hardest mornings to get up and go end up being the most rewarding, maybe you see some seals in the harbor or maybe you just feel the breeze on your face. Either way, you take that inspiration you feel on the board to your work, giving yourself a better day and becoming your better self.

Throw out the dress code: Tight transition, no problem. Over the past winter, I realized that I could just layer in preparation for the paddle-to-work transition. Sometimes five minutes makes the difference in getting to work on time or getting time to eat and sleep. Scrubs work great under dry suits. Really the perfect layer for spring and fall! DO practice the rear entry zipper if going solo. It’s no problem to zip and unzip alone but it gets easier with practice. For summer, I’ve been wearing a sports bra or swimsuit under my scrubs to maximize the ease of using the parking-lot-dressing-room to paddle after work. The easier it is, the more likely I am to get out and take advantage of beautiful days. I realize that I work in a pretty ideal situation with scrubs and all. If you work in an office setting, wearing a bikini under your pants suit might not be ideal. The key is a quick transition, however you want to interpret that.

GPS: Yes, there are so many downsides to always being attached to our phones. But let’s face it, we pretty much always have them around and most of the time they’re charged enough to use the maps. If you live in an urban area, especially, the findings might surprise you. I’ve found few places around New England that yielded zero search results for “boat launch.” 99% of the time, I find some place to put in. Whether it’s a pond, lake, river or ocean, there’s always something close enough to make it happen. Had I just relied on my faint knowledge of a town, I may have assumed there wasn’t any water. You may assume that about your town too. That’s why I embrace the GPS. It may be an industrial park on a river or a swimming pool sized pond, but it will be water and it will be worth it.

I love my work, but it’s so important to remember to play. Go outside and watch the sunrise or sunset. Go get your feet wet and feel your paddle pull through the water. There is always time if you make time.