Biarritz doctors are authorised to prescribe surfing or stand-up paddle lessons to patients suffering from a range of chronic ailments in a pilot scheme they say works "miracles".
The French seaside town of Biarritz has become the first in the world to prescribe surfing lessons to ward off a host of ailments from depression to heart disease, with doctors and patients insisting the treatment works wonders.
Some 20 doctors are taking part in a pilot scheme in Europe’s surf capital to encourage the notoriously pill-popping French to cut back on medication and take to the waves.
The doctors are authorised to prescribe a 12-week course in sports, including surfing or paddleboard but also more classic activities like swimming or Nordic walking that best cater for a patient’s medical problem.
In some cases, the sessions replace all medication.
The programme, created by the regional national Olympic committee, reportedly does not cost the social security system a centime. Instead the €300,000 (£211,000) required to offer surfing or other sports lessons to the current 200 beneficiaries comes from the Biarritz town hall and two private health associations. Patients are only asked to contribute €10 per session.
“After six months, the results are already positive in our eyes,” Nicolas Guillet of Biarritz Sport Sante, one of the organisers, told Nouvel Observateur. Only two or three people have given up midcourse. Virtually all those who complete the 12-week programme go on to continue practising the sport.
Karine, a 40-year-old, was prescribed stand-up paddle sessions for her lumbago said: “I’ve suffered from back pain for so long. I had an operation 10 years ago and was even paralysed for over a month,” she told Nouvel Obs.
Six months later, she said her back pain has almost disappeared, describing it as “a revolution”.
Contact with the ocean can be incredibly therapeutic, said Guillaume Barucq, a Biarritz doctor and avid surfer, who described the scheme as “miraculous”.
“The waves that break in the water or on the sand break molecules that liberate negative ions. They improve the oxygenation of tissue, your mood, tone, quality of sleep and concentration,” he said.
Water sports like stand-up paddle “get the lower limbs working and strengthens all the back and abdominal muscles, as well as the shoulders and buttocks”.
Exposure to the sun helps create vitamin D, which can ward against cancer and diabetes, he added.
“It’s also about enacting cultural change in a country where 90 per cent patients who come out of the doctor’s surgery do so with a medical prescription.”
However, the scheme relies on doctors working intelligently with sports educators.
“To tell a patient: ‘Do some sport’ isn’t enough. It’s like telling him ‘take some medicine’ and letting him try and find the right one at the chemist,” said Mr Barucq.
Doctors say surfing and other sports can be highly effective in fighting chronic pain and depression, as well as diabetes and obesity, and helps reduce the 46,000 deaths annually linked to inactivity.
According to Mr Guillet, more than 20 French towns have got in contact to find out about the scheme. Valérie Fourneyron, a French MP and former sports minister, is due to table an amendment to a health law to facilitate the process for patients with chronic ailments.