Give Your Legs a Break: Try Kayaking

Most of us do not have a river or the ocean in our backyard or a kayak and accessories waiting on the shore. Unless you do, kayaking requires a little more advance planning than many sports. Taking the time is well worth it.

"Kayaking is a great sport for connecting with nature," says Oliver Fix, the 1996 Olympic men's kayak champion. Being on the water "provides an excellent environment for mental relaxation and physical challenge," Fix adds.

Consider making kayaking part of a backpacking trip, nature excursion, or adventure vacation, and you will see things you would never see on foot, in a car, or from a train. Your options are almost limitless. "There's whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, paddling in Canadian Lakes, or for that matter, anywhere in the world," Fix says.

Body Benefits

If the call of the wild is not enough to get you to trek to the nearest body of water and paddle away, consider the fact that kayaking provides a unique upper body strength and aerobic workout that nothing you do at home can match. "Kayaking provides tremendous stimulation to your lower back and abdominal muscles," says Richard Cotton, an executive wellness coach. "It also works your upper back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, and forearms."

Increased Strength

Cotton says you can get great strength benefits and build your anaerobic capacity by doing interval training in a kayak—going hard for 1 minute, then relaxing for 2 to 3 minutes, then going hard again. "Athletes training for kayaking competition do a lot of intervals," he adds.

Aerobic Power

In addition to building upper body strength, kayaking is "a fabulous aerobic workout," Cotton says. "It doesn't burn quite as many calories as running or cross-country skiing, but your heart gets a great workout and it's probably something you will really enjoy doing." Kayaking at a moderate pace burns about the same calories per hour as moderate swimming or slow jogging—around 340 calories for a 150 pound person. Not many sports offer such a great combination aerobic and strength workout.

Balancing Upper and Lower Body Exercise

"Kayaking is an excellent cross-training modality," Cotton attests, "especially for runners, who often have great legs and weak arms." Fix agrees. He says that kayaking is a great alternative to conventional fitness training, which focuses mainly on the lower body. "For people with knee problems, kayaking takes an unhealthy stress off and allows them to challenge themselves and increase their fitness levels."

Don't Get Hurt

Every sport carries with it risk of injury. One way to reduce your chances of injury is to get yourself ready during the off season. Hit the gym with a set of goals. You will need to do the following:

  • Increase aerobic endurance
  • Develop core strength
  • Improve flexibility
  • Strengthen upper back, chest, shoulder, arm, and leg muscles

Put your plan into motion 2-3 months before you get on the water. You can train 2-3 days a week, which will increase your power and reduce your risk of injury.

You are almost there! Do not jump into your kayak just yet. Although you are sitting down while you paddle, kayaking involves your entire body. Take some time to loosen up your muscles. Start out with a short jog or quick walk. Once you feel a bit looser, take 10-15 minutes to stretch your shoulders, arms, back, legs, and core.

Beginners Need to Know

Beginners should consider taking a kayaking course. The course will teach them everything from basic strokes to rolls and wet exits.

If you will be paddling in whitewater, Fix advises that you connect with a professional instructor who understands river safety and can help you understand how river features "change dramatically with only slight changes in water level."

On flat water, the chances for tipping are slim, but you never know what will happen and having basic exit and roll skills is a good idea. On whitewater or in the ocean, you need to be especially well-prepared. Another option for beginners, is a sit-on-top boat for which learning to roll or wet exit is unnecessary. If you are set on a sleek sit-inside boat, you can find a class at the YMCA, local colleges, or local paddling clubs.

Gear Basics

There are 5 pieces of equipment you need before you hit the water. These include:

  • Paddle
  • Boat —Whitewater kayaks are generally made from plastic. Ocean kayaks may be made from wood, fiberglass, or a blend of materials.
  • Personal flotation device (PFD)
  • Spray skirt —These keep splashing water and rain from filling your compartment.
  • Helmet —If you will be kayaking in moving water, you need one.
  • A buddy —You should never paddle alone, especially if you are new to the sport.

If you want to give kayaking a try and you are not ready to buy, rental prices are generally reasonable. Contact an outfitter near where you will be kayaking to get their hourly and daily rates.


American Canoe Association


Canadian Public Health


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Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 1/27/2017

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