Last updated: November 5, 2023
What exactly is paddling? Paddling is using your arms to propel a watercraft, whether it’s a kayak, canoe or stand up paddle board (SUP). Is paddling a good workout? Absolutely yes! Paddling gives your entire body a workout.
Regardless of your level, there are many health benefits, for your body, your brain and your soul. I have been paddling on an SUP for nearly ten years and a kayak as well for the last two. It’s a hobby, but I’ve found it’s also the perfect kind of exercise – the kind you can easily enjoy.
Is Paddling a Good Workout?
Paddling is a functional workout, exercise for the entire body. Functional fitness is important because it helps you navigate the regular daily aspects of life with greater ease.
The best kind of workout is one that is also a hobby, because you’re more likely to establish a habit of doing it, more likely to incorporate it into your life for a healthier lifestyle.
There are a number of physical benefits of kayaking, SUP or canoeing. Because they are a full body workout, all of the muscles in your body will get a wake-up call. These are the muscles you use on a daily basis. Some more than others.
The more often you paddle, the easier it is to build muscle from it. And the more often you paddle, the more you improve your cardiovascular fitness as well. This is one of my favorite things about it.
1. Cardiovascular Capacity
Cardiovascular fitness is your body’s ability to bring oxygen to your muscles. The better your fitness, the easier everything becomes. From going up steps to walking the dog, life is easier if your heart and lungs are in the habit of putting in effort to move oxygen where it needs to go.
The beauty of paddling is that you can get a good paddling workout for your heart and lungs, but you can also go at your own pace. So you set the difficulty level for whatever works best for you. Some days are just easier than others, but it’s all good for you.
Endurance is your ability to sustain physical activity for a length of time. This is helpful in many life situations such as taking the stairs, but especially helpful if you travel and spend any amount of time at the airport or internationally where fitness is more a way of life than in the United States.
Taking your board out and playing around with it isn’t going to help with your endurance much, unless you accidentally end up on the far side of the lake.
But going any significant distance intentionally, getting some true paddling exercise in, will surely benefit you. Endurance improves over time gradually and will also get easier as time goes by.
Flexibility is the ability to move, bend and stretch without causing injury. Flexibility is important because it reduces the odds of injury and helps you recover from injury faster as well.
Maneuvering yourself around on, or getting into, a watercraft is going to give your body a micro-session in flexibility just about every time. The more you paddle, the more flexible you will become in the small ways that matter most.
4. Hormonal Balance
When you exercise your body produces hormones that make you feel better about yourself, and life. These hormones are called endorphins and they make you happier.
Other important hormones for every day health, immunity and sleep are cortisol, insulin and thyroid and these are more balanced when you have a regular exercise routine as well.
When you exercise regularly, your hormonal balance is easier to achieve. It’s important to find a workout that feels more like an enjoyable hobby than a workout and paddling is exactly that.
5. Arm Muscles
You use your arm muscles every day, for lifting and carrying things, pulling doors open or putting things away. The stronger they are, the easier your everyday activities will be.
Your arms are one of the most used muscles used in paddling. The motion of propelling yourself through the water, with the resistance that water provides, gives your triceps and biceps a fantastic workout.
6. Your Lats
Your latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, are one of the biggest muscles in your back. You use them, and your other back muscles, on a daily basis when lifting, pushing or just even sitting. These muscles are used whenever you paddle, especially the lats.
7. Your Abs
Your abdominal muscles are important in posture, protecting your organs and your spine and keeping you stable and balanced. You are nearly always using them, even if you don’t realize it.
A good ab workout has a positive influence on both mobility and independence, now and in the future. Your abs are easily targeted by the act of paddling, and the act of balancing, and may well be the muscles you feel the most afterwards.
Next to laughter, paddling is my favorite workout for abs.
8. Your Legs
You use the smaller muscles in your legs for balance and stability, especially on a paddle board. You might not notice it, during or after, but when you engage these muscles, it improves your balance and coordination for other activities as well.
Standing up while paddling is an incredible exercise in balance, with minimal downsides should you fail occasionally!
9. Low Impact
A huge reason paddling is such great exercise is that it can do all the things above while also being easy on your joints. This is a low impact workout, meaning you don’t suffer the jarring effects associated with a variety of other sports.
This also makes it one of the better ways to get a workout when your joints are already sore from other activities.
10. Weight Loss
Any exercise you do on a regular basis can help with weight loss. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to do it, right? Paddling burns a lot of calories because it’s a full-body workout. The calorie burn only works if you’re actively putting in effort though.
Floating along isn’t going to have the same effect. The key to weight loss is to burn more calories than you consume, so it’s easier with some forms of exercise than others. Paddling is one of the easier ones if you want it to be, without a doubt.
11. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for building and maintaining strong bones and regulating a variety of systems within your body. Recent studies suggest that vitamin D plays a crucial role in getting quality sleep, enhanced immunity, reduced inflammation and cancer prevention.
It’s possible to get vitamin D from your diet, but it’s difficult to get enough of it. Especially if you live in the northern end of the northern hemisphere. The easiest way to get your daily dose of vitamin D is through exposure to the sun. Paddling helps you do this without extra effort on your part.
The mental health benefits of paddling exercise may be even more significant than the physical ones. I’ve never been out on the water and not come home a more peaceful person and I think everyone I know who paddles feels the same exact way.
12. Time Outside
What does spending time outside do for you? Besides the fact that you’re more likely to be physically active, studies have shown that spending time outside on a routine basis can improve focus, memory and attention.
It also helps you recover more quickly from injury or illness. One of the major reasons for this is the vitamin D your body makes in response to sunlight.
13. Reduce Stress
Exercise can also improve your mood, reduce stress and increase energy levels. Combined, being outside and exercising has a way of reducing stress. It makes it easier to return to your normal work day, makes relationships easier and makes you a more positive person.
Paddling, right next to hiking, is the most enjoyable way I’ve found to reduce stress.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the moment you’re in, of not being distracted by a thousand thoughts, worries and plans. Mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety and improves the quality of your life at the moment, hours afterward and in the very long term.
When you’re outside paddling on a lake or other body of water, it’s easier to be mindful, to be in the moment. It’s easier to put aside your worries for another time and just enjoy the moment. You can feel the effects of this long after you get home.
Being active in a community enhances your life in many ways. It strengthens your sense of belonging, gives you something positive to look forward to and can even prolong your life.
Studies show that people who are actively involved in their community on a regular basis tend to be happier, whatever their age.
Everyone sort of does their own thing when out paddling, but in a group. You can be as social as you want, or not, and no one really cares.
It’s so easy to be grateful when you’re paddling because everything around you is more beautiful and happier than on your average day. Everyone has a sense of this gratitude and it builds on itself in such a way that you find yourself smiling from the inside out.
Learning to appreciate what you have makes a huge difference in your life. People who are grateful are often more interested in taking care of themselves and handle stress much better than those who are not.
Leaving your comfort zone usually leads to learning and increased confidence. Getting out there and successfully navigating your way around boosts your self-esteem, every time.
While some trips are easier than others, you will always walk away feeling good about yourself and what you’ve accomplished.
Bonus Reasons Why Paddling is Healthy
The benefits of paddling as a workout, and a hobby, extend beyond those of physical and mental health. Because it’s a hobby too, you find yourself wanting to do it even when you don’t necessarily need to exercise.
18. Paddle Anywhere
The very best kind of workouts are the kind you can do anywhere, as long as you have the proper equipment. The beauty of paddling is that you will find water and watercraft just about everywhere in the world.
Paddling through new and beautiful waters is one of the most rewarding activities I’ve ever done and I will often choose a destination simply because I want to experience the paddling scene there.
19. Active Rest
Lastly, paddling is a great workout because you set the pace. It can be a slower one if you need it to be. You can still get some great exercise for your upper body if your legs are just a wee bit sore from some other sport.
It loosens up your sore muscles in a gentle way and makes you feel better than when you started.
FAQs about Paddling
Yes! It builds muscles in your arms, abs, back and potentially in your legs too.
Paddling is fantastic exercise for the entire body.
There are many health benefits of paddling, physically and for mindset, including increasing strength and coordination as well as reducing stress and building community.
Yes! Combined with a proper diet, paddling burns a lot of calories and can help you to lose weight.
Paddling can be an effective form of exercise that can contribute to overall fat burning, including belly fat. Fat loss and belly fat reduction also depend on factors such as your diet, overall physical activity levels, genetics, and individual metabolism.
Final Thoughts: Paddling is a Fantastic Workout
Paddling is good for your mind and your body, in ways that many sports are not. It increases muscles strength and coordination, focus and confidence, and builds community and reduces stress.
Lastly, it’s easier to embrace a healthier lifestyle when you find an exercise hobby you love to do. Most of the time you don’t even think of it as exercise.