The Burn of the Dragon: a workout so effective, it changed the way doctors treat breast cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 7528Montana Dragon Boat Festival ranks among North America’s 10 biggest races

On the surface, the surging sport of dragon boat racing might appear to be all about color and spectacle. At the Montana Dragon Boat Festival and more than 65 similar annual events across North America, teams dress in outrageous costumes to paddle 46-foot, Hong Kong-style boats — each of which characteristically features a carved, painted dragonhead and tail.

But for many racers, the real attraction is the powerful, low-impact workout that comes through training and racing. Not only are the broad health benefits of the sport proven, they’ve even transformed the way that oncologists, physical therapists and researchers approach upper body rehabilitation after breast surgery and radiation treatment, as well as other treatment regimens.

“Participating in the Montana Dragon Boat Festival is one way we help our clients get out of the boxes that they sometimes put themselves into when coping with severe health challenges,” says Pam Roberts, M.D., a family physician and certified health and wellness coach in the Journey to Wellness program at Kalispell Regional Healthcare. “Our goal is to build confidence, endurance, and self-efficacy as individuals and as a team.”

Twenty years ago, the prevailing advice from doctors to women suffering from breast cancer and associated lymphedema was to rest and avoid lifting anything heavier than a few pounds. But Donald McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist at the University of British Columbia, suspected that advice was exactly wrongheaded. In 1996, McKenzie organized Abreast in a Boat, a dragon boat team made up entirely of women suffering from breast cancer.

That team reported improved quality of life with no ill effects. Since then, study after study has demonstrated that dragon boat paddling, with its repetitive upper-body movements and cardiovascular workout, is not just good for the spirits, but for the body as well. According to an August 2013 research article in the journal BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine, “Findings support the benefit of dragon boating as a physical activity on breast cancer survivor health-related quality of life, physical, functional, emotional and spiritual well-being, breast cancer-specific concerns and cancer-related fatigue.”

Today, more than 150 dragon boat teams of breast cancer survivors exist worldwide. They’re hardly the sport’s only disciples. Popular in China since before Biblical times, dragon boat racing has lately enjoyed a renaissance among people of all ages, abilities and physiques.

“The wonderful thing about dragon boat racing is that it is so inclusive,” says Rob Brisendine, Kalispell Convention & Visitor Bureau group sales manager. “From competitive to amateur divisions, people of all ages and sporting abilities can compete.”

Dragon boat racing offers all the health benefits of any rowing or paddling sport — exercising all major muscle groups: legs, arms, back, abdominal and buttocks. The legs provide most of the power of the stroke, and the upper body adds the rest. It also provides an excellent low-impact cardiovascular workout as teams row in sync to the beat of a drum across a 500-meter stretch of water.

Ultimately, the competition hinges upon teamwork and stroke synchronization rather than individual brute strength. That helps to explain the success of teams such as the Golden Dragons of Portland, Oregon, whose members range in age from 55 to 95. The team, whose slogan is “old age and treachery will overcome youth and ambition,” often places above younger college teams and was a standout contender in the 2012 and 2013 Montana Dragon Boat festivals.

“It’s such a fast and furious sport, and yet it’s something that you don’t have to be 23 years old to do well,” says Alida Tinch, president of the Flathead Dragonflies dragon boat club, based in Kalispell. “Being out on the water with the drums beating, paddling in unison with people you like — it’s different from any sport I’ve ever experienced.”

The sport isn’t just for well-practiced teams. In the amateur division of the 2013 Montana Dragon Boat Festival most teams organized around businesses, social clubs and nonprofit organizations and experienced dragon boat racing for the first time when they practiced in training sessions the two days prior to the event.

Now in its third year, the Montana Dragon Boat Festival has grown into one of the top-10 dragon boat festivals in North America. The 2013 festival drew 91 teams totaling 2,000 participants, plus another 6,000 spectators. Nearly half of the teams came from outside Montana, including 22 teams from Canada.

“For the dragon boat festival we have one of the best locations in North America,” Brisendine notes. “Our visitors are blown away by the crystal-clear waters of Flathead Lake, the beauty of Flathead Lake Lodge and the hospitality of the valley’s lodging and dining hosts.”

The Montana Dragon Boat Festival will be held September 13 and 14, 2014. Teams can register online at

About Kalispell, Montana

Located in the center of the Flathead Valley, Kalispell is the gateway to Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, Whitefish and all of the recreation, art, shopping and adventure that Northwest Montana has to offer.