Why Paddlesports Are Increasing in Popularity

If you haven't taken a spin on the open water aboard a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard, it's probably just a matter of time. According to the Outdoor Foundation's 2019 Special Report on Paddlesports and Safety, almost 23 million Americans hit the waterways in 2018.

Why Are Paddlesports Becoming Popular?

But if boats have always been there, and waterways have always been there, why are paddlesports just starting to gain a significant foothold in the collective mind of American consumers—particularly those interested in fitness? It's a tricky question to answer, but it probably boils down to a combination of culture and technology.

"Paddlesports are gaining a lot of steam due in part to three factors: accessibility, affordability, and approachability," says Joshua Silva, the Brand Marketing Manager at Jimmy Styks SUP Boards. "As technology and manufacturing have improved, brands have been able to deliver quality products at a good value. Paddleboards, for instance, started as high-end epoxy boards that often cost more than $1,500. Now, with blow molding and inflatable construction, high-quality, durable boards can be found for $500."

Add to that the accessibility of waterways—Silva points out that most people live within 15 miles of a body of water—and a national culture that's embracing active lifestyles, and you've got an industry primed and ready to grow quickly. "Paddlesports have provided people with an opportunity to get out on the water without having to invest in a boat," Silva says. "The barrier to entry is much lower than sports like wakeboarding or waterskiing, and for people who enjoy multiple activities, there's a small learning curve. People who've never paddled before can pick it up very easily."

For fitness enthusiasts, it's the quick learning curve and low cost of entry, particularly for activities like stand-up paddleboarding, that seem to be so appealing. In an environment where boutique fitness classes often cost more than $20 a pop, renting a paddleboard for a couple of hours for roughly the same price seems pretty reasonable. And you can't deny the role that social media plays in the fitness culture.

"Paddlesports just look really cool to do," says Mandy Enright, a registered dietitian and SUP Yoga, Fitness, and Paddle Instructor with Endless SUP Company. "The number one reason people love taking my class is to get pictures to show their friends." There's nothing quite like the allure of the perfect Instagram pic to inspire people to try something new.

But aside from the Instagram-ready environment and newly-appealing price point, paddlesports are also a great way to enhance your overall fitness. For those who hate spending hours in the gym and are looking for ways to get fit outside, paddlesports offer an appealing array of benefits.

Paddlesports Offer Low-Impact Cardiovascular Benefits

Man paddleboarding on a lake

Hero Images / Getty Images 

When you think of cardiovascular activities, you probably think of things like walking, running, cycling, or jumping rope. But paddlesports like rowing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and canoeing can also increase heart and breath rate enough to qualify as moderate- to high-intensity activity.

Paddlesports also have the benefit of offering a low-impact workout. This makes them a great cross-training option for people with lower-extremity injuries or chronic pain. Plus, for kayaking, rowing, and canoeing, you actually get to exercise while sitting down—a novel idea if you're used to associating cardio with activities that keep you on your feet.

Paddlesports Engage the Upper Body

Woman stand-up paddleboarding in the ocean

M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

It should be fairly obvious that if you're using your arms to pull an oar through the water, then your upper body is going to reap the benefits. But again, this positions paddlesports in a different light than other common cardiovascular activities, like running, jumping rope, and cycling, each of which relies on the lower body to power the movement.

One 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that elite female kayakers had a much greater contraction capability in their back and shoulders than active women who weren't kayakers. In other words, if you're looking for an activity that can help carve your upper body and shoulders while still delivering a cardiovascular workout, paddlesports are a good way to go.

Paddlesports Engage the Core

Woman kneeling on paddleboard

Blend Images - Mike Kemp / Getty Images 

The engagement of the core musculature of the body during paddlesports might not be as evident as that of the upper body, but it's no less important.

As you plunge the paddle or oar into the water, using your upper body to drag it toward you as you propel the watercraft forward, your core muscles—the muscles of your abdomen, low back, and even your hips—must engage to prevent your torso from twisting or swaying. Essentially, your core functions as an anchor for your extremities during paddling. And the more you engage in paddlesports, the stronger your core becomes as a result.

One 2013 study published in Procedia Engineering found that the trunk, hip, and knee stabilizers of study participants showed high levels of muscular engagement during stand-up paddleboarding. Then, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, took the research a step further, noting that elite stand-up paddleboarders showed higher levels of static and dynamic postural control and isometric trunk endurance than recreational stand-up paddleboarders, while the recreational group had higher levels than the sedentary control group.

This enhanced core activation can translate to better balance and performance in other activities, and might just lead to those rock hard abs you've been hoping for.

Paddlesports Are Easily Modified for All Levels

Teenage girl and boy paddleboarding on a lake

Todd Lawson / Getty Images 

Because paddlesports are low-impact activities, they're readily accessible to individuals of almost any fitness level. Silva points to stand-up paddleboarding as an obvious example: "The beauty of paddleboarding is that anyone can do it. It's a great family or social event, or for more competitive people, it can be a fun way to push physical limits," Silva says.

"Some people prefer to use paddleboards for recreational activities, such as hanging out on the lake or cruising down the river with friends. Others want to improve their fitness and use paddleboarding as cross-training." He points to SUP yoga and SUP racing as two ways to really challenge yourself.

And with all paddlesports, you can make the activity more challenging by changing your environment. Whitewater paddleboarding is going to test you in ways that cruising on a lake never could. Rowing against a current is a lot more challenging than rowing with a current. Kayaking in the ocean, against waves and tides, is more daunting than a quiet jaunt down a creek. There are almost endless ways to adjust the workout to meet your interests and ability level.

Paddlesports Offer a Chance to Engage With Nature

Woman paddleboarding and taking a photo on Lake Louise

 Paul McKenzie / Ascent Xmedia / Getty Images

Outdoor exercise is good for the mind, body, and soul, and it may actually cause you to rack up more minutes of total exercise each week.

At least, that's what a 2012 study published in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity points to. Researchers found that older adults who exercised outside at least once a week accumulated significantly more minutes of exercise than those who only exercised indoors.

There's just something about getting outside and communing with nature that lifts the spirits and makes you want to keep coming back for more.

Tips for Getting Started

Couple kayaking in a lake
Hero Images / Getty Images

Before you run out and invest several hundred dollars in top-end gear, it's a good idea to test the waters, so to speak, with classes and instruction. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are the most readily-accessible paddlesports out there, so it should be fairly easy to find a certified instructor or outfitter in your area.

"Look for paddleboarding classes run by a certified instructor. The World Paddle Association offers a database of certified instructors, but you can also check with your local watersports dealer," Silva says. But he adds that you might want to look into larger outdoor events, like the CamelBak Pursuit Series, which allows people to try a wide variety of different outdoor activities in a safe environment with trained instructors. That way you could try your hand at paddleboarding, canoeing, surfing, and camping, all in the context of a single event.

If you do decide to rent a board or kayak and head out to the lake, ocean, or river alone, do your research first. "Find out the depth, as well as what's underneath the surface," says Jess Amendola, owner of SUP Yoga Center in St. Augustine, Florida. "Be careful of oyster beds or debris at low tide. Water maps for most spots can be found online, but you should also research the winds, tides, and radar to know exactly what will be going on during your adventure."

As with any outdoor excursion, it's important to let at least one person know your detailed plans and when you expect to be home. "When out in nature, you can never totally predict what may happen, so be on the safe side," Amendola says. "And lastly, remember to breathe and look around. Enjoy your beautiful surroundings and always leave your spot cleaner than when you got there."

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines. 2018.

  2. García-García O, Cancela-Carral JM, Huelin-Trillo F. Neuromuscular Profile of Top-Level Women Kayakers Assessed Through Tensiomyography. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(3):844-53. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000702

  3. Ruess C, Kristen KH, Eckett M, Mally F, Litzenberger S, Sabo A. Activity of Trunk and Leg Muscles During Stand Up Paddle SurfingProcedia Engineering. 2013; 60, 57-61. doi:10.1016/j.proeng.2013.07.031

  4. Schram B, Hing W, Climstein M. Profiling the sport of stand-up paddle boarding. J Sports Sci. 2016;34(10):937-44. doi:10.1080/02640414.2015.1079331

  5. Kerr J, Sallis JF, Saelens BE, et al. Outdoor physical activity and self rated health in older adults living in two regions of the U.S. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012;9:89. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-89

By Laura Williams, MSEd, ASCM-CEP
Laura Williams is a fitness expert and advocate with certifications from the American Council on Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine.