Neurobiologists Say Fly Fishing is Good For You

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that fly-fishing is good for you. Or it does it?

The Harvard Medical School’s Department of Neurobiology recently published an article that compared fly-fishing to yoga in its ability to relax the brain and combat the ill effects of every day stress.

“What is it about this so-called quiet sport, with its incantation of rod and fly, river, and nature, a sport of both stealth and strategy, that helps to lessen stress and calm the brain?” asked the article the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter.

Herbert Benson, Mind Body Medicine Professor at Harvard Medical School, says humankind has learned over millennia how to turn off stress by “breaking the train of everyday thinking.”

Fly Fishing

“What better example of this than fly-fishing,” says Benson, “with the repetitive back-and-forth motion of the rod and line and fly? You’re focusing on where that fly is going to land on the water and that breaks the train of everyday thought.”

The negative physical impacts of day-to-day stress in modern society are well documented. More recently scientists have identified the so-called “relaxation response” — the purposeful initiation of a physical state of deep rest, one that changes a person’s physical and emotional responses to stress. When practiced, the relaxation response slows down breathing rate, relaxes muscles, and reduces blood pressure.

Doctor’s Orders

Yoga has long been the prime example of an activity based on the purposeful pursuit of a state of relaxation. The Harvard neurobiologists compare fly-fishing to yoga, with its repetitive casting motions and contemplative state. A fly fisherman is removed from “the real world”, surrounded by nature, and disconnected from phones and electronic devices.

Fly-fishing has also been compared to meditation, in that fly-fishers perform a simple, repeated task, often for hours on end. “The motion of fly-fishing is part and parcel of the activity itself and may contribute to its calming effect,” says Benson.

More than 38 million Americans fly fish. A survey by the Outdoor Foundation found that 38 percent of Americans who say they are considering taking up fly fishing will do so as means to relax and reduce stress.

The Harvard article also points out a study involving combat veterans that found participants had significant reductions in stress and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and improvements in sleep quality after participating in a fly-fishing retreat.

And you thought you were fly-fishing just for the fun of it. Now you have scientific proof that going fishing Saturday instead of getting those home chores done is the right decision – after all, you’re only doing it for your health.

(Published in Anglers Club Magazine July 25, 2016)

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