Give Your Legs a Break: Try Kayaking

Most of us do not have a river or the ocean in our backyard or a kayak waiting on the shore. Unless you do, kayaking means you need to plan more than you do with other 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," he adds.

Think about making kayaking part of your next outdoor adventure, and you will see things you would never see on foot, in a car, or from a train. "There's whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, paddling in Canadian Lakes, or for that matter, anywhere in the world," Fix says.

Body Benefits

Kayaking is both an 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, a wellness coach. "It also works your upper back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, and forearms."


Cotton says you can get strong and build your aerobic capacity by doing interval training in a kayak. You would go hard for 1 minute, then relax for 2 to 3 minutes, then go hard again. "Athletes training for kayaking competition do a lot of intervals," he adds.

Aerobic Power

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 swimming or slow jogging—around 340 calories for a 150 pound person.

Balancing the Upper and Lower Body

"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 fitness training, which mainly works 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."

Do Not Get Hurt

You can get injured with any sport. You can lower your risk of getting hurt kayaking by getting ready during the off season. Hit the gym with a set of goals. You will need to build your:

  • Aerobic capacity
  • Core strength
  • Flexibility
  • Upper back, chest, shoulder, arm, and leg muscles

Put your plan into motion two to three months before you get on the water. You can train two to three days a week. This will increase your power and lower your risk of injury.

You are almost there! Do not jump into your kayak just yet. You sit down when you paddle, but kayaking uses your whole body. Take some time to loosen up. 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.

Beginner Info

If you are just starting out, then think about taking a kayaking course. It will teach you things from basic strokes to rolls and wet exits.

If you will be paddling in whitewater, Fix suggests that you connect with an instructor who knows about river safety and can teach you 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. Having basic exit and roll skills is a good idea. You need to be ready on both whitewater and in the ocean. Beginners can try a sit-on-top boat for which learning to roll or wet exit is not needed. If you want to be in a sleek sit-inside boat instead, you can find a class at the YMCA, local colleges, or local paddling clubs.

Gear Basics

There are five pieces things you need before you hit the water:

  • Paddle
  • Boat —Whitewater kayaks are 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 getting in the kayak.
  • Helmet —You will need one if you are kayaking in moving water.
  • A buddy —You should never paddle alone.

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


American Canoe Association



Health Canada

Travel and Tourism—Canada


Beginner's guide. American Canoe Association website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

Common sea kayaking injuries: Muscles and joints. Kayak Dave. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

Conditioning for kayakers: A complete off-season program. Roy Stevenson website. Available at: Accessed June 28, 2021.

Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board  Last Updated: 6/28/2021