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Dear Menopausal Surfer, Are You Helping Your Heart?

femalesurfers surftrainingforwomen women's health womenwhosurf Aug 30, 2023
Woman in brimmed hat and sunflower rash vest surfing on a longboard

Surfing Australia reports that over the last 10–13 years there has been a 20% increase in women surfing across Australia1 and that, since COVID, the 50+ age group has seen a 45% increase in participation2. In other words, surfing is not just for the groms! You need only look at your local female surfboard riders clubs and see the inclusivity of age, ability and board type to understand that female surfers of all abilities are on the rise, creating a greater representation of women in the line-up. 


The growth of females in surfing from age 40–55+ is particularly important to me as an Exercise Physiologist, because I’m interested in how our performance capacities and risk profiles change as we approach perimenopause and menopause., These phases of a woman's life can see an increased risk of disease burden, particularly for cardiovascular disease, due in part to dramatic changes in our cycling sex hormones. Lifestyle factors also play a role as women find themselves taking on one of the busiest, most stressful and vigilant phases of their lives. 



There are many biological and lifestyle changes during the perimenopausal and menopausal phases that can place our hearts at risk. Our cardiovascular anatomy inherently begins to change due to fluctuating hormones, but so too do important metabolic factors (how we use energy in our body) and broader issues of stress management, body fat distribution as well as time and motivation for physical activity. Some ‘pausal’ changes include: 

  1. Hormone fluctuations can cause a more excitable cardiovascular system and one less able to adapt to stress.
  2. Loss of the protective role of our sex hormones on our vascular system, which can weaken the muscular walls of our veins and arteries, making them less effective at dilation and constriction. 
  3. Changes to the vascular system and fluid balances within our body, with a potential elevation in average blood pressure and resting HR. 
  4. Our body fat percentage and cholesterol levels typically increase, with a more central distribution or accumulation of body fat, heightening risk factors for heart disease. 
  5. Hormone fluctuations can impact our libido for exercise, meaning our drive to participate in high-intensity or prolonged exercise can lessen. We can begin to experience a natural ‘slowing down’ and inconsistency when it comes to training and self-care. 
  6. Many women are still busy working and have families they also need to accommodate. So finding time and energy for personal exercise can also be a massive challenge. 


Heart Research Australia suggests that to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease, Australian adults need to:


  • Be active on most, preferably ALL days
  • Complete 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week
  • Complete 1.5 to 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise 
  • Participate in muscle strength training exercise 2 days per week 3


Keep in mind that these recommendations don’t differ according to gender or age above 18 years of age. Nevertheless, how do you measure against these recommendations? Because the truth is over 50% of Australian adults aged 18–64 are not meeting these recommendations. If surfing is now your primary form of physical exercise, is it allowing you to meet your heart health requirements?

Research suggests the average heart rate (HR) achieved in a 1-hour session of shortboard surfing is approximately 135 beats per minute  (bpm). That’s a moderate to somewhat hard level of effort, depending on your age. Surfing is also an intermittent exercise, meaning that the average HR of 135 bpm is not sustained for the whole surf session. Rather, you will have bursts where you work at a higher HR (e.g. paddling back out to the lineup) and moments of much lower effort (e.g. sitting on your board and socialising or waiting for a wave). It is important to consider these factors, given we are meant to be clocking up 2.5 to 5 hours of exercise at a moderate level of effort every week.

Other factors that impact the cardiovascular effects of surfing include:

  • Swell size and type
  • Periods of large swell or no swell, causing inconsistency or long durations out of the water 
  • Board type
  • Intention in the water

There are many variations to surfing and the “typical female surfer”, so blanket guidelines don’t always work, instead - it’s best to get an understanding of your individual surfing profile and how it is challenging your heart.



Let’s consider your own personal surfing dynamic. As mentioned above, surf conditions, your board type, surf location and your own drive or purpose in the water all play into the average HR you achieve in surfing. If you are a competitive female shortboarder who trains in 20-minute heats, where the goal is to get as many waves as possible in that time, then your prerogative will be to haul yourself back to the lineup ASAP and search for the most critical waves. Hence, you will likely achieve a higher HR average than if you are a more recreational surfer whose goal is to socialise with friends. Likewise, surfing point breaks on a longer board, where the paddle back is cruisier and you make the distance more easily, may mean reduced cardiovascular effort and, therefore, less of a heart challenge. 


Of course for some female shredders,  surfing is meant to be and always will be, a social activity with friends - a chill and relaxing downtime in contrast to a stressful busy life.  That’s great because social engagement can have its own positive impacts on stress and heart health. Likewise, time in the ocean can enhance our moods , down-regulating our stress states and positively impacting our HR and blood pressure. 

However,  providing your body with consistent “just enough challenges” is key to your body being  adaptable and robust as it ages, so ask yourself the “Surf fitness self-check in” questions below, then check back in with the heart health recommendations.


Surf fitness self-check in

“Is my surfing giving myself enough of a challenge?” 

“How often did I surf this week?”

“How much effort did I put into my surf sessions? Or, How hard did I think I was working?” (you want to be hitting at least a moderate level of effort).

“How long were my surf sessions this week?”
Each of you will have personal goals in mind. But, isn’t it great to know that you can improve your surf fitness and heart health by simply swapping boards, surfing somewhere different or changing your intention in the water?  Of course, before you go ramping up the intensity and duration of your paddling, it’s a good idea to check in with your medical practitioner and have them assess your HR and blood pressure.
As perimenopausal and menopausal athletes, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to make surfing work for our health and optimise our overall performance. It’s just a matter of understanding our unique biology as women and using this to our advantage. That is power right there ladies!
We have heaps of surf fitness training protocols and strategies here at The Female Surfer, and as an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, supporting your cardiovascular health is my jam. I want to see you all surfing your best waves possible in this lifetime, for as long as you can. So let’s make sure surfing is giving you what you need for optimal health and performance throughout your life phases as a woman. Ask yourself - Is my type of surfing protecting my heart health? If it isn’t, reach out to us at The Female Surfer and we can provide you with further assistance and guidance.

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