It’s no secret that I love being outside and hate being in the gym. I haven’t actually been to a gym for a good few years, not since I stopped going to CrossFit a while back, much preferring to get my exercise by spending time doing fun things outdoors. Whether I’m hiking up hills, playing silly games in the park, or dipping my toes in the sea, getting active outside is what keeps me fit and healthy.
It is also no secret that I love to be by, on and in the water. I don’t get as many opportunities as I might like from week to week, but I absolutely love water sports and certainly enjoy using them in my arsenal of keeping-fit-outdoors activities. Trying and getting good at water sports is a great way to keep fit, in the summer as well as the winter (there’s a whole post on the benefits of cold water on your health waiting to be written). As part of my 38 things for 38 years challenge I promised myself I’d be in the water more, and over the last year I’ve certainly managed to get wet more often than in recent times.
Here I’m offering up four water sports I enjoy at a very normal person’s level of ability and fitness that help keep me in some kind of shape. If I lived by the sea, or had access to the right equipment in my own garage, then I’d be making much more of them, but in the meantime, I enjoy the benefits whatever opportunity I get. And as someone who considers themselves to be very normal indeed (!), I can testify that these sports are all the things – fun to take part in, good for the body and the mind, and great for keeping fit.
You probably need a reasonable amount of fitness to enjoy these water sports from the start, but all of them are good for improving and developing strength and fitness. Combine them all to hit all the muscle groups. Grab your swimsuit and your dryrobe, and get yourself to the water!
If you’ve come here for “calories burnt” or similar, you’re not going to get that from me. This is about movement for general fitness; yes, you’ll burn plenty of calories and will need to fuel up and refuel accordingly, but please try not to equate calories to exercise, as that’s when we start to feel guilty for eating.
Open Water / Wild Swimming
Swimming will always be a favourite summer activity for many people, and I’m told it is one of the most efficient total-body workouts around. Swimming – whatever stroke you prefer – is great for building muscle strength from neck to feet, and moving fast in the water gives you a superb cardio workout as well. Add to that the fact that swimming is very low impact, meaning the risk of injury from the activity itself is far less than plenty of other on-land activities such as running.
It’s all very well swimming in a lovely heated indoor pool, but it does get a bit repetitive – something that open water swimming will definitely sort out. Wild swimming adds in a bit more effort, too, thanks to tides and swells. And swimming when you’ve got scenery around you, whether it’s a beach view or hills surrounding a lake, just like taking your run off the treadmill and into the countryside, is much more interesting.
If you are looking for open water swims here in the UK, I’d start in Dorset – they’ve got some of the most iconic swims in the country down there. There are also lakes suitable for swimming all over the place, and there are Lidos and salt water pools dotted about as well. If you’re new to open water swimming head for a spot with an organised club and a safety boat to get you started.
The fact that kayaking is a good cardio workout is obvious, but only those who’ve tried it know just how many muscles are used to paddle. Oh boy do I hurt the day after a paddle! I’m told that kayaking is actually one of the best cardio versus strength combinations on the water – it doesn’t take much trying for it to tone your core muscles, legs and arms, and get your heart pumping hard. You simply don’t have any choice but to work hard, and that’s one of the best ways to make sure I keep fit.
Kayaking is also very easy to access, with rentals available on lakes and beaches across the UK, for not very much money. Once you’ve learnt the basics (and I would recommend doing some real learning with a lesson or two to get you started), you can take your workout pretty much anywhere with water. And what’s even better is you can travel with your boat, actually go and visit places, use it for sightseeing and adventure as well as for keeping fit. I know several paddlers who shove an overnight bag in the nose of their boat and head off on a multi-day trip along canals or across Lochs, and I have to admit, that appeals massively. Maybe that’s what should be on my 2020 list.
Fancy something a bit more adrenaline fuelled? Kayaking can do that too – slalom or white-water kayaking is an awful lot of fun.
Paddle boarding is probably the trendiest water sport on my list of keeping fit activities here, it’s incredibly popular and everyone seems to love it. And it’s not just those cool folks who do yoga on their boards who get to use it for fitness, paddle boarding, even if you kneel and don’t stand, is very good for us. Balance and stability on a board comes with a good strong core, and paddling successfully requires decent upper body strength.
Unlike kayaking above and surfing below, paddle boarding is a low-impact activity, assuming you are doing it properly, but still manages to hit the shoulders, arms, hips and trunk even on the flattest of water and slowest of paddles. Unlike the other three water sports on my keeping fit list here, getting wet when paddle boarding isn’t guaranteed – you can very easily stay (mostly) dry and not need to change your clothes afterwards, potentially making it even more ideal for pre-office workouts than swimming, kayaking or surfing.
For me, it’s the thrill of gliding across the water, and the ability to move around the lake or across the bay. As with kayaking it’s quite possible to travel for miles on a paddleboard, and you can even surf on it if you love the waves. They’re easier to fit in the boot of a car than a kayak, meaning that having and using your own is much more likely, although they are also very easy to hire these days.
Surfing and Body Boarding
Probably my absolute favourite water sport in this list, surfing is everything a workout should be, hitting what feels like every muscle group as well as needing total concentration if you want to avoid falling in. Forget tricks and looking graceful (good job really, I have the grace of an elephant), surfing and body boarding from fitness is developed right from your first experience. It’s my upper body strength that takes the biggest hit, paddling out to catch those waves over and over again, with my core and legs working hard to balance on the board – surfing needs and therefore develops strength, agility and stamina. The stronger your arms, core and legs are, the better it is for surfing – and you can develop those with consistent training on the water.
I’ve had a few lessons and have loved every one, my stubbornness is a great trait for surfing! If I had money to spend on one bit of water sports kit, and I knew I was going to use it, then it would be a surfboard, no question – it would look great on my (non existent) camper van!
In all these activities please do your best to stay safe. Make sure you have the right safety equipment, go with a buddy, don’t push your limits until you know what you are doing, take notice of tides and currents, and know what to do if you get into difficulty. The RNLI are amazing, but I’d rather not add to their rescues from this blog post if at all possible…
Do you love to get out on or in the water? Do water sports help you to keep fit? I’d love to know what your favourite self-powered water sports are.
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