In research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, researchers from the School of Exercise and Sport Science at Sydney University found that "flat-water kayaking is characterised by exceptional demands on upper body performance". This is good news for our heart and cardiovascular system, which also means good news for our waistlines. The same study also reported low levels of body fat and a body composition favouring lean muscle mass in Olympic sprint canoe and kayak paddlers.
So why use a kayak? "Many people feel more comfortable in a kayak, as they're seated within it, supported on either side," says Olympic kayak competitor Jake Michael, from Sydney Univerity's exercise school. "Using a double-sided paddle to propel the kayak forward, each stroke increases the velocity at which the kayak travels; each time you lift the paddle out of the water, the velocity slows down. This is because, the movement of a kayak, semi-submerged in water, is opposed predominantly by water drag," he says. "For the kayak to move forward the paddler must generate forces by the working muscles."
Even if you're not competing in an event, or even paddling constantly, "kayaking . . . also improves the aerobic capacity and fitness of the paddler", Michael says. Aerobic capacity refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can utilise during exercise, "regardless of the pace".
What happens to your body when you're in a kayak
"Many people think that it is just the arms that are used during paddling," Michael says. "Paddlers also place exceptional demands on the entire body, from the large muscles of the trunk that rotate the torso, to the smaller muscles that extend the arm and, to a smaller amount, on the muscles of the legs.
"As your technique improves, you will find that the legs become important to assist with rotation. Because the legs are a much greater muscle group than the arms, a reduced strain is placed on the cardiovascular system when using these muscles compared to the arms. Thus, by incorporating the legs, paddlers can save energy in their arms and have the ability to extend the length of time they can paddle as well as get in a whole body workout."
How to prevent injuries
Because kayaking is not an impact sport such as running, where with each stride you land heavily on the ground, it is a safe and effective activity that can be performed by everybody. Some kayaks are double-seated, which means you can paddle with your partner, friend or child. And as you improve your level of fitness with each stroke, you are literally reducing your risk of generating an injury the more you paddle.
"However, with any form of exercise, the large force requirements, repetitive nature and postural considerations involved in paddling may place the structures of the lower back and shoulder joint at risk of injury," Michael says.
"In addition, paddlers new to the sport often develop pain in the small muscles in the back of the shoulder and wrist. This may be due to technique problems and can often be fixed by a simple adjustment to the way the paddle is held." Ideally, before you set out, have a lesson with an instructor to learn the correct techniques. This small investment may save you medical bills on the long run.
And there's little chance of over-exercising one side of your body, as can occur in other sports. "Because kayaking uses a double-sided paddle, to get the kayak to move, paddlers will need to co-ordinate the left and right side of the stroke," Michael says. "This creates a strong core. . . as well as helping to stabilise the boat. Overall, kayaking is a great way to work out the entire body evenly."
All in the mind
Research in the Journal of Leisurability found that participants in a 12-week kayaking program reported elevated feelings of self-worth, confidence and adequacy. They also reported feeling better about their overall physical appearance. "Depending on your goals and type of paddling you enjoy, kayaking can be peaceful and meditative or pedal-to-the-metal-style," Michael says. "Either way, it is a good way reduce stress levels and increase energy."