5 Health Benefits of Kayaking

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Kayaking is an outdoor sport enjoyed by many. It also has tremendous benefits for your heart, joints, and upper body strength.

Whether you’re a recreational paddler or a competitive athlete, kayaking has a lot to offer for your health and well-being. Here’s everything you need to know about this heart-pumping (yet relaxing) water sport.

What Is Kayaking?

At first glance, kayaking may seem indistinguishable from canoeing. However, there are key differences that make kayaking unique.

A kayak is a smaller, more compact watercraft than a canoe, and riders are strapped into individual seats. Because of a kayak’s smaller size, it’s best steered by a double-sided paddle. As you kayak, you’ll hold this paddle with both hands, dipping it into the water on alternating sides to propel you along.

Many kayaks are for solo riders only, but you’ll also find tandem kayaks that seat two people (or even, occasionally, three people!). When paddling with a partner, the person seated in the front controls the rhythm of paddling, while the person in the back follows the pattern of their strokes.

Equipment Needed for Kayaking

Before you head out for an aquatic adventure, it’s important to equip yourself with the right gear. For the best kayaking experience, make sure you have the following items:

  • A kayak to seat the appropriate number of people
  • One double-sided paddle per person
  • A life vest or other flotation device
  • Spray skirt (optional, to keep your lower body dry)
  • Water bottle

Health Benefits of Kayaking

Kayaking combines cardiovascular activity with low-impact strength training for an all-around excellent workout. Here are some of the health benefits you can expect from your time on the water.

Improved Cardiovascular Health

Looking for an exciting way to get your recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity for the week? Kayaking could be your new go-to sport.

“Cardiovascular exercise is activity that increases your heart rate and breathing rate for 10 minutes or more. Kayaking, because it’s a rhythmic exercise where you maintain a fairly steady pace, fits the bill nicely,” says Los Angeles-based personal trainer Laura Flynn Endres.

As you navigate your chosen body of water, the pace and intensity of your kayaking are up to you. The harder you paddle, the more you’ll increase your heart rate—but intervals of lighter activity come with advantages, too.

“Maintaining a steady pace (or even alternating between slower and faster intervals) will get the heart pumping and make this a fantastic low-impact exercise option for improving heart health and burning fat,” Endres says.

Increased Upper Body Strength

Clearly, your upper body sees the majority of the action in kayaking. The motion of raising and dipping your paddle, plus the resistance of the water combine to strengthen the muscles in your arms, shoulders, back, and chest. It’s not surprising that a study of Olympic kayakers found that their physique, on average, leaned toward a larger upper body girth.

Increased Strength in Legs, Glutes, and Core

Despite its apparent focus on the upper body, kayaking doesn’t leave the lower body without a workout of its own.

“The muscles of the back, shoulders, arms, and abs are the main drivers, yes, but proper and efficient paddling form requires the use of leg and glute muscles, too,” says Endres. “Building muscle strength and muscle endurance in those body parts will help you maintain proper form, keep a steady pace, and use efficient and effective paddling strokes.

Along with leg and glute muscles, the back-and-forth motion of seated paddling also engages your core, promoting stronger, leaner abs. Your oblique muscles—the muscles responsible for rotating your core—are particularly engaged with the motion of paddling to the left and right.

Low-Impact Movement That's Easy on the Joints

High-impact exercise isn’t right for everyone. In fact, in some seasons of life, or for people with certain health conditions, low-impact workouts are a far better choice.

Unlike running, tennis, and many team sports, kayaking doesn’t involve any pounding of your limbs against the ground. This low-impact exercise is gentle on the joints, making it suitable for people with arthritis or those at risk of injury.

Low-impact activities come with the additional advantage of less recovery time post-workout. And a 2015 study in the journal Sports Medicine Open even found that low-impact exercise promoted cognitive health in older adults.

Time Spent Outdoors

In our high-tech, fast-paced world, who couldn’t use more fresh air? Research shows that just 20 minutes in nature can help reduce markers of stress. Getting out on a lake, river, or pond in your kayak could be a much-needed antidote to the stressors of daily life.

As you venture out, paddle in hand, you may also rekindle your sense of adventure and curiosity. (Who knows where your kayak may take you, or what you’ll see along the way?) Additionally, the head-clearing silence of alone time can be a powerful means of re-centering and reconnecting with your inner self.

How to Prepare for Kayaking

Unless you live right next to a lake, you may not be able to get in your kayak every day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t perform exercises at home or at the gym that prep you for the days on the water.

Endres suggests several off-the-water exercises to get (or stay) in kayaking shape. “A solid core is going to be your foundation, your powerhouse, so try including planks, dead bugs, hollow-body holds, and bicycle motions for your obliques.”

She also advises working the upper and lower back with rowing exercises using dumbbells, a barbell, bands, or cables. Exercises for strengthening biceps and triceps can include bicep curls, tricep extensions, and tricep bench dips. “And don’t forget to work legs with squats, lunges, deadlifts, and step-ups, and work glutes with hip thrusts, clamshells, and bridges!”

If you’d like to boost your skill even further, you might even consider virtual kayaking. One small study found that people who engaged with a virtual reality kayaking simulator increased their enjoyment and learning progress with the sport.

A Word from Verywell

For a low-impact sport that can get your heart pumping and your muscles toned, consider dipping into kayaking. It may require an upfront financial investment, but the physical and mental health benefits can make it all worthwhile.

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