Study: Standup Paddling Increases Fitness…Sorta

Want that six-pack? Paddle harder.
Want that six-pack? Paddle harder. Photo: Lorenzo Menendez

Study: Standup Paddling Increases Fitness…Sorta

When my father turned 61, he said he wanted to try a new form of exercise–something that would get him a "killer core" and the six-pack my mother always wanted. Going to the gym had become monotonous and our Maryland home–sandwiched between the bay and the Atlantic Ocean–promised an ample aquatic playground. One week later, he came home with a standup paddleboard, misplaced expectations and pipe dreams of landing a cover shot for Men's Fitness.

Unfortunately, a recent study has some bad news for my father’s grand fitness plans.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recently commissioned two comprehensive studies on standup paddleboarding to examine the health benefits of this non-traditional and newly popular form of physical activity.

The results?

If you want the core-blasting and cardiovascular benefits standup paddling is widely known for, you need to incorporate vigorous twisting and what scientists call, "paddling with intent" – two things that result largely from experience and time on the water.

"To get the comprehensive core benefit many people mention in reference to standup paddleboarding, you need to have relatively advanced form or technique, which only comes with practice,” said ACE's Chief Science Officer Cedric Bryant. “Without this high level of experience, you still get a good workout, you're just not engaging the full suite of abdominal muscles."

Fun, fitness, or both? Photo: Greg Panas
Fun, fitness, or both? Photo: Greg Panas

The first study, led by Jeanne Nichols, Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, found that front ab muscles and muscles along the lower spine were effectively stimulated during standup paddling, even at lower intensities. The same study showed muscles that run along the sides of the body (external obliques) needed the highest level of paddling intensity—good form that twists the torso with each paddle stroke—to activate and strengthen them.

Looks like my father’s casual sight-seeing paddle adventures work some of his core–just not as much as he thinks. If he wants the full benefits of his new hobby, he'll have to spend a lot more time getting comfortable on the water.

The second ACE-commissioned study, which took place at the University of California, San Diego under the leadership of Jeanne Nichols, Ph.D, monitored paddlers in both an indoor pool and on open water. On open water, most novice paddleboarders didn't reach the level of exercise needed to significantly improve cardiorespiratory function, while experienced paddleboarders did so easily.

In short, the research found that it takes a lot of focus and intent to achieve the ultimate SUP workout, but we can all get a decent workout and have fun with this form of exercise. So while paddleboarding doesn't live up to the media hype of instant abs, health and happiness will keep most people paddling for years to come.

Related

Study finds that standup paddling is the fastest-growing sport.

Five ways to convince your friends to try SUP.