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Men paddling an outrigger canoe
(Image source: pixabay)

A new study by researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa found that 1 out of 5 (20%) Hawaiʻi residents have participated in the uniquely Hawaiian sport of outrigger paddling. Paddling has particularly high popularity among Native Hawaiians; 42% have joined in this activity. The study also found the next ethnic group with the greatest participation was Pacific Islanders; 31% have paddled in their lifetime. These findings have been recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These findings suggest that promoting paddling and other activities that are physically demanding as well as culturally relevant, could be a meaningful way to improve physical activity rates in Hawaiʻi, according to the researchers from the UH Office of Public Health Studies, the Hawaiʻi Department of Health (DOH), and the John A. Burns School of Medicine. The researchers also noted that paddling appealed to a wide range of ages, income groups, and geographic locations.

Hula, paddling provides cultural ties, health benefits

hula class
Papakolea, Oʻahu with Kumu hula Hina Kamauʻu. (Photo credit: Nicosello)

Additionally, the study determined the extent of popularity of hula, which is an iconic part of Hawaiʻiʻs culture with a quarter of all Hawaiʻi residents reporting having danced hula in their lifetime. Almost half of Native Hawaiians and 42% of Pacific Islanders have danced hula. Impressively, two-thirds of Hawaiian women dance hula sometimes or frequently. In other studies by UH researchers it was found that the graceful dance of hula is also physically rigorous with energy expenditure levels that can be comparable to a basketball game or tennis match.

“Public health surveys do not typically measure culturally relevant physical activity,” said Tetine Sentell, interim dean of the Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health, who led the study. “Because of our diverse population, it is vital that we promote culturally relevant activities like outrigger canoe paddling in public health programming, research, and surveillance.” Sentell also noted that policy makers could support these activities and promote both healthy behaviors and celebrate things that are unique to Hawaiʻi and make it a special place.

Landon Opunui, physician and Hawaiian health leader, who is interim executive and medical director of Na Puʻuwai, a Native Hawaiian health system on Molokaʻi was particularly impressed by the study results. Opunui, an elite paddler, recently completed a 300-mile journey around the Pacific with an international group of paddlers who knows that the physical benefits of paddling is only the beginning of ways the sport creates good health.

Opunui explained, “Everyone has different reasons for paddling, for some it is the friendships created, others enjoy being a part of the paddling community, for some it may be health benefits, others it may be the competition. For me, it connects me to my ancestors.” He believes that all these motivations contribute to the mana, the intrinsic power, of paddling. As a Native Hawaiian physician Opunui knows the physical benefit is just one way paddling improves health. He noted that paddling can improve mental health by being part of a supportive community, and the calming and meditative aspect of being on the ocean.

Results pulled from Department of Health annual survey

The new findings came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a yearly health survey conducted by DOH. In 2018, for the first time, questions about outrigger canoe paddling and hula were included in the survey. Data for the study was collected over a three-year period. “Unless we include culturally important activities in our surveys, their importance to the health of our population remains invisible in these influential measurement systems that are used to inform policies and funding,” Sentell said.

The survey included about 13,500 respondents. Across all racial/ethnic groups, 20% had engaged in paddling sometime in their life.

Participation in paddling was higher for Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders than for all other racial and ethnic groups.

Although men were more likely to have participated in paddling than women, there were high levels of engagement in the activity for both genders. According to the results, experience in paddling was seen across race and ethnicity, gender, age, education and income level, and health status. These findings indicate that paddling is widely enjoyed, making it a promising area for widespread community health promotion.

The researchers are now conducting additional surveys with more detailed questions about paddling and hula to further understand the implications for community health in Hawaiʻi and beyond.

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