Surfing: The 'miraculous' treatment no doctor has ever prescribed. Until now.

Could the ocean hold the answer to your chronic pain and health problems?

Biarritz is a small city on the southwest coast of France, flanked by the Bay of Biscay.

Known as the "Queen of the Basque Coast," it's a place rich with history, garnished with old-timey charm, and highlighted by sunbathed sandy beaches.


Image via NormanEinstein/Wikimedia Commons.

For centuries, Biarritz has been a destination for believers in the healing power of its seawater.

They call it thalassothérapie. (Sorry, buckaroos, no lassos involved.) It's a derivative of the Greek words for sea (thálassa) and therapy (therapeía), and people flock to Biarritz's beaches, spas, and treatment centers for a sprinkle of that sweet ocean magic.

Photo by Iroz Gaizka/AFP/Getty Images.

But in the 1960s, a radical (in the slangiest sense of the word) new benefit of Biarritz's waters was discovered: surfing.

With a swell just right for almost any skill level, Biarritz has become one of the top surf destinations in Europe.

This guy found the fountain of youth. It's called the ocean. Photo by Kevin Cole/Flickr.

Today, an experimental health initiative in Biarritz, created by France's Olympic committee, is keeping in the town's tradition of looking to the ocean for good health.

Biarritz doctors are piloting a program that lets them prescribe water sports for chronic health issues.

Yes, with a script reading "catch some waves" from one of roughly 20 participating physicians, patients are taking four-month lessons in surfing, paddleboarding, swimming, and other lower-intensity ocean aerobics.

A paddleboard lesson in Portugal. A French surf instructor would obviously be wearing a beret, not a fedora. Photo by Karma Surf Retreat/Flickr.

Nicolas Guillet, one of the program's organizers, is confident it's working. "After six months, the results are already positive in our eyes," he told Nouvel Observateur. Most patients, he says, complete the program and continue the sport on a regular basis.

The doctors say ocean sports amp up our health in a lot of different ways.

For starters, you get to play in the sun! Guillaume Barucq, a physician involved in the program, says the sun helps our bodies make vitamin D, which protects against cancer, diabetes, and lots of other health problems. (Obligatory PSA: Always wear sunscreen!)

Photo by Dawn Ellner/Flickr.

Barucq, an avid surfer, calls the program "miraculous." He says ocean sports can improve blood flow, build core and extremity strength, and relieve pain.

One patient described her treatment as "revolutionary." She's a 40-year-old woman who presented with a decade of chronic back pain. And after only six months of stand-up paddleboard lessons, she was all but cured of her pain.

There are psychological benefits to being in the ocean, too. Barucq says breaking waters (e.g., waterfalls, waves, and even showers) release negative ions into the air, which can improve our moods — or get us "stoked," as surfers might say.

While the research on negative ions isn't settled, it does weigh on the side of, well, the positive. A 2013 study found that negative air ion treatments significantly reduced the severity of mood disorder symptoms and boosted the moods of healthy subjects.

The pilot program in Biarritz is especially promising because it could change France's tendency to overmedicate.

Photo by Charles Williams/Flickr.

"It's also about enacting cultural change in a country where 90% of patients who come out of the doctor's surgery do so with a medical prescription," said Barucq.

Even better? The program doesn't cost the French social security system a penny ... or centime, anyway.

It's fully funded by the town of Biarritz, with support from a few health associations and a mere 10 euros (just under $11) per patient — a pill most health consumers can swallow.

With global health care costs on the rise, hopefully the world is taking notes from "The Queen of the Basque Coast." The ocean — and nature in general — may not be a total cure-all, but it's clearly worth a regular dose.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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