Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings National

Water Sports for a Total Body Workout: Cool Ways to Stay Fit this Summer

Jul 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Marlaina Donato
Person in bathing suit doing downward dog yoga pose on stand up paddleboard in the water

luna vandoorne/

Whether it’s adrenaline-fueled kiteboarding or peaceful paddle boarding, getting active in the water helps to improve bone density, elevates mood and engages major muscle groups without stressing the joints. The highlight of a vacation might be rafting down a river, surfing at sunset or waterskiing on a mountain lake. Whether done regularly or occasionally, water sports offer a good workout disguised as play. While some water sports require a higher level of fitness, most are beginner-friendly and only require the willingness to try something new. 

Core Adventures

“Many lifelong skiers call waterskiing the fountain of youth. My friends who are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s that still ski are living proof,” says pro water skier Corey Vaughn, owner of Bum Pass Water Ski Club, in Bumpass, Virginia. “Waterskiing is one of the best total body workouts on the planet, yet you are having so much fun it never feels like a workout.” 

For Natali Zollinger, a raft guide, river surfer and whitewater stand up paddle boarder, it’s about trusting and working with the current: “Either rafting or paddling, our core has to engage way more than it would with other sports, and you’ll definitely notice the internal strength.” Based in Moab, Utah, Zollinger says that in only one week, paddling and kayaking produce noticeably more tone in the triceps and biceps, adding, “If you row boats, you’ll see the traps, shoulders and back muscles develop.” 

Stand up paddle board (SUP) yoga on the water, although seemingly placid, challenges the abdominals and cultivates balance. Christy Naida Linson, yoga instructor and owner of Prana Yoga Center and Aligned Flow Floating Studio, in Denville, New Jersey, says, “Paddling is excellent exercise for the core, back, shoulders, arms and legs. Postures are done in relationship to the current of the water and recruit many of the smaller stabilizing muscles.”

Getting the Feet Wet

SUP yoga is accessible to both new and experienced students that can swim and are comfortable in the water. All postures can be modified to be done in positions lower to the board, such as kneeling, to make balancing easier. “A typical class is 90 minutes long and begins with instruction on land. We go through paddle strokes and safety, how to get onto the board kneeling, transition to standing when feeling stable, paddle and stop,” says Linson. “The worst thing that happens if you lose your balance is that you go for a little swim!”

Fitness requirements for river rafting can vary, depending on the type of trip and location. “Usually a couple months of ‘stair-stepper’ and some squats and lunges will do the trick,” says Zollinger. When it comes to gear, commercial trips offer the most freedom, especially for beginners, she says. “Normally, commercial trips pack all the gear that you need for basic camping, and all you have to bring is your personal gear like clothes, toiletries, etc.”

Waterskiing can be a challenge, but learning is easier with proper instruction, optimal equipment, an experienced, skilled boat driver and positive encouragement. “People tell me about Uncle Fred just throwing them behind the boat with a couple of old skis, telling them to hang on tight and then gunning the boat. This is not what I would consider best practices,” says Vaughn. A typical lesson lasts about 30 minutes, involves six to eight passes up and down the lake and includes technical guidance on body positions and timing. 

For optimal waterskiing, Vaughn prefers private lakes to avoid interruption in the rhythmic flow of skiing that can occur on busier lakes or bodies of saltwater due to boat traffic, winds, tides and currents. Vaughn marvels when everything comes together; “There is nothing quite like the smile of a first-time skier when they get up [on their skis] and realize they are gliding across the water.”

In the end, water sports are all about embracing possibilities.“It is a genuine joy to see people who may be new or doubt their ability come away feeling empowered,” says Linson. 

Zollinger passes on wisdom about time on the water. “The river continuously teaches me to be in the flow and appreciating the little things.”

Marlaina Donato is an author and composer.

Join Our Community Newsletter