Why Kayaking Is the Ideal Summer Workout With Its Heart-Healthy, Core-Strengthening, Mood-Boosting Perks

Photo: Getty Images/AleksandarNakic
If you’re like me, these hot temps have you dreaming of lake days and beach vacations. After all, is there anything better than getting out in the sun, drinking an agua fresca, and enjoying a summer-y activity, such as paddle boarding on the river—or if you’re feeling especially brave, surfing for the first time?

Speaking of, one popular activity on the water we suggest: kayaking. Not only is it the ultimate way to relax, but it’s also a great way to get some movement in. (Don’t have a kayak? We recommend the Oru Lake kayak, which is light and foldable.)

Below, certified personal trainers dive deeper into why kayaking is the thing to do this summer (plus how to stay safe doing it).

How your body benefits from kayaking

Kayaking improves your heart health and overall health

To start, kayaking is a great choice if you want another way to get cardio in your routine. “Kayaking is a good cardiovascular workout, so it keeps your heart healthy,” says Josh York, CPT, founder and CEO of GYMGUYZ.

Plus, cardio workouts can also benefit your skin, digestion, joints, muscles, lungs, immune system, sleep quality, and more, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

It works the muscles in your arms, core, and upper back

While kayaking can be a great workout for anyone who feels able and is interested, it’s “especially good for those looking to strengthen their arms, core, and upper back muscles,” says Jesse Feder, a CPT with My Crohn’s and Colitis Team. “Kayaking involves using your upper body and core muscles to pull against water resistance with the paddles, which is what makes this such a great workout.” He adds that people who work slouched over at a desk all day may especially want to work those muscles.

Additionally, kayaking is unlike some other common types of exercise you may do with a few friends. “[Kayaking] doesn’t put too much stress on the joints, unlike other social activities like hiking, volleyball, or dancing,” York says.

It helps your joints, muscles, and bones stay strong

Kayaking is also great for people who are older or have joint or muscle problems. That’s because it builds muscle and bone density, according to Mike Julom, an ACE-certified personal trainer, CrossFit athlete, and founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.com. “It’s similar to lifting weights, but instead of a dumbbell, you’re lifting your paddle against the resistance of the water,” he explains. “[This can] help combat the natural decline in bone density that occurs with age.”

It can be switched up

Any workout can get boring if you don’t change things up a bit. That’s why York loves how customizable kayaking is. If you want to kick it up a notch, play with the tempo of your strokes, or, if you're seasoned enough, consider kayaking in a faster current, or a winding river instead of an open lake—something that requires you to maneuver in a different way. There are also single, and two-person kayaks that'll change the dynamic of your workout, depending on what you choose.

How kayaking is good for the mind

It increases feel-good hormones

As a form of movement, kayaking increases dopamine and serotonin, which are hormones that decrease stress, lead to feelings of happiness, and have other positive effects.

It’s done outdoors, which can reduce stress and improve mood

As a workout that’s done outside, it brings all those benefits. Both Feder and York mention how peaceful and healing both nature and fresh air are.

Julom explains this further, speaking to how the rhythmic motion of paddling, sound of the water, and sense of gliding across the surface can be soothing. “This is an example of what psychologists call the ‘blue space’ effect, where being near water can lead to lower levels of stress and anxiety,” he says.

It can lead to higher levels of confidence

If you’re new to kayaking—or even if you aren’t—practicing can serve as a confidence booster, too. “Overcoming challenges, such as learning to steer or tackling more difficult water conditions, can lead to a sense of achievement and improve self-esteem,” Julom adds.

FYI, a few risks to prepare for before hitting the water

The kayak could capsize

While kayaking is one of the more fun ways to exercise, it’s not without risks. First, the possibility of capsizing. Julom says wearing a life jacket is crucial, regardless of how well you can swim. “Additionally, learning and practicing how to right a capsized kayak can be a lifesaver,” he says.

The elements can be dangerous

From a safety standpoint, be mindful of where and when you kayak. York recommends doing some research on the body of water to ensure it’s safe. Some examples of information to check about include:

  • Finding a calm, shallow spot on the water
  • Wearing a helmet (along with your life jacket)
  • Bringing a whistle, flashlight, extra paddle, and navigation equipment
  • Kayaking with a friend
  • Skipping the activity if the weather is stormy or windy

Along those lines, Julom recommends being mindful of your exposure to the elements. “Sunburn, dehydration, and hypothermia can all be concerns when kayaking, depending on the weather conditions,” he says. To avoid these risks, he continues, wear sunscreen, bring plenty of water, and dress for the weather. Also keep in mind the temperature of the water, and wear a wetsuit or drysuit if it's below 70 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

You could overwork or strain a muscle

Listening to your body is paramount. “Like with any activity, overuse injuries can be a problem if you do too much too soon,” Feder says. “While kayaking is great for your body and muscles, it is best to ease into the activity and build up your strength/endurance.”

Julom emphasizes the importance of proper paddling technique. “Using your core muscles to help power your stroke, rather than just your arms, can help distribute the effort and reduce strain,” he says. Further, he encourages warming up and cooling down to prevent muscle strains and injuries.

Besides technique, the frequency and length of your kayaking sessions matter, too. Julom recommends beginners hit the water for no longer than 20 to 30 minutes, between one to two times a week. As they become more comfortable, he says, they can go up to one to two hours, and up to three times a week. He explains this frequency gives people the benefits of kayaking without sacrificing the necessary time their bodies need to recover.

Otherwise, consistency is key. “I would recommend that someone kayak with the same frequency that they would exercise in another form,” York adds.

As you can tell, there’s a lot to keep in mind when it comes to water safety. At the same time, all of the mental and physical benefits of kayaking—plus the pure enjoyment it can bring—mean it may be your new favorite way to get in some movement this summer.

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