By Michelle Hering, M.S., Best Life fitness expert
Running on the treadmill, biking, taking an exercise class—obviously, these are all great ways to burn calories and get in shape. But if you're looking for something a little more challenging, a little more fun, and a little more adventurous, why not try your hand at extreme water sports?
Though you might think these activities are for more competitive athletes or the wild at heart, the truth is that anyone can participate. And because you can usually find classes for just about every activity, you can get yourself acquainted and comfortable with the sport before you give it a try. Just make sure you read up on it and ask a lot of questions—but most importantly have fun!
As with any sport or activity, there are a few basic things you'll need to buy (equipment and safety gear) and know (like safety strategies). If you're going to be in and out of the water, it's important to invest in a wetsuit to keep warm. Also, don't forget water (to drink) and a life vest, which is recommended even for the best swimmers. The U.S. Coast Guard recognizes some of the boards or equipment you'll use as "water vessels" and by law, any water vessel requires a life preserver for each person. Also remember to wear sunscreen and sunglasses (preferably those that wrap around your face) or a hat for ultimate sun protection. As for sport-specific gear, most of the items on mentioned here and below can be found at local sporting goods stores. But before you go out and buy anything, check in with the instructor of the class first, as most companies provide an opportunity to rent or borrow equipment while you're deciding whether or not this sport is for you. You can also find rentals at most water resort towns, such as Key West, Florida, Honolulu, Hawaii, and San Diego, California.
Some final safety precautions to take before you head out: Make sure you're confident in your swimming skills; you need to be a strong swimmer to navigate waves, currents and rapids, so make sure you’re comfortable in the water before you try one of these sports. Check the local weather and skip water workouts when the weather is bad. If you're headed to the ocean, check tides and currents and if you're headed to the river, check water levels so you know when and where you have to navigate through rapids. You should also know how populated the waterway you're using will be to avoid the dangers and frustration of having to navigate through a lot of boats, swimmers and other water-goers. Finally, take a friend along for safety. These sports can be dangerous—but if you play it safe, you can burn a lot of calories and have a lot of fun.
Ready to learn about the specific sports? Here are four you may want to try:
What it is: A high-endurance sport that allows you to maneuver through waterways often inaccessible by larger water vessels. Depending on which route you take, it can be very relaxing as you gently paddle along a slow moving river or extremely challenging as you engage all of your upper body strength to navigate rough waters. (You can use an oar or paddle—with one or two blades. Paddles are typically used for extreme sports because they're lightweight and easy to handle.) You can choose an individual kayak, a two-person kayak or even a rubber boat, often called rafting.
Workout facts: Kayaking tests not only your balance, but it also works the chest, triceps, shoulders, back and biceps. You should make sure you have good lower back and abdominal strength before taking on the white water. An hour in the rapids can burn about 330 calories for a 150-pound person.
• Water shoes to protect your feet if the boat capsizes or if you need to jump out onto the river bottom, which is often covered with rocks or other debris that might cut your feet. They also help wick away moisture.
• GPS tracking device to help keep you on course
• Throwline in case you get stuck and need to be pulled or if you need to connect to another kayaker
• First aid kit to take care of any cuts or scrapes you may get while kayaking
• Locking blade knife to help get you off of a throwline or to detangle from vegetation or even lines, such as fishing lines or rope floating in the river that might have snagged you
Stay-Safe Strategies: Research the route you plan to take beforehand. Rivers and streams are constantly changing, so it's wise to know what you are getting into instead of heading into a rapid unaware and unprepared. If you're a novice or even an expert, rapids can be very dangerous; they can capsize a boat and trap riders under logs or rocks. If you've reviewed your course, you will know when heavy rapids or peaceful turnouts are coming. And even if you're kayaking individually, it's important to venture out with a group. And always pay attention the experience level of others in your group; a novice in a group of experts can quickly get in over her head and not only be a danger to herself but also to others in the group. Finally, don't forget to check your equipment (including foot braces, sliders, rudder and skeg control) for wear and tear before every ride to avoid potential accidents. Inspect any components that could break and replace anything that is beginning to wear too much. Make sure everything is in good shape prior to paddling.
What it is: This relatively new sport (it was born in the 80s) combines a small board similar to a wakeboard and a small kite that's shaped like a parachute. It's similar to windsurfing (see below), but with this sport, you get some serious air-time because the wind can actually catch the kite and send surfers jumping or flying into the air. Kitsurfing can easily transition to cold-weather climates; simply add a bit of clothing, of course, and attach the kite to a snowboard or skis instead.
Workout facts: You don't need superman arm strength to kitesurf; actually you will mainly use your legs, butt and abs to glide your way through water and air. It's reported that a 150-pound person can burn up to 500 calories in an hour!
• Kite (not your typical kite, these kites, shaped like an arc, come in a variety of sizes, colors and types)
• Kite Control Device (including safety release system)
• Kite Board (includes fins, foot straps or binding and leash)
• Kitesurfer (includes harness, life jacket, water shoes, helmet)
Stay-Safe Strategies: This can be a dangerous sport so it is recommended that you take a lesson from a reputable kitesurfing schools; check out Kitesurfing School for a list of schools worldwide.
What it is: This surf-canoe hybrid involves paddling a long surfboard that you stand on using long canoe-like paddle. Unlike surfing, however, you don't need big waves to get in a good workout.
Workout facts: You'll need good balance and upper and lower body strength to paddleboard. Obviously, you'll be working your upper body as you paddle through the waves or simply cruise up and down parallel to the beach. You'll also need lower body strength and balance to help maintain your grip as you adjust your stance from a slight bend to a full squat to stay on top of that board as you tackle the waves.
• Standup paddleboard (size based on experience and paddlers weight; more experienced and lighter surfers can choose narrower boards)
• Standup paddles, which have an angle or an 'elbow' in the shaft for efficiency and should be roughly six to eight inches taller than the paddler
Stay-Safe Strategies: Never leave your board, even if you lose your paddle; it's easier to paddle with your hands (to either recover your paddle or head back to shore) than it is to swim. If you're in the ocean or a lake, use an ankle leash to stay connected with your board (avoid ankle leashes if you're out on a river; it could get snagged by debris and hold you down.) And keep your paddle in the water as opposed to picking it up out of the water or dropping it; the paddle will help you maintain balance.
What it is: A combo of surfing and sailing (essentially you ride a surfboard with a sail attached) that can be done on the open ocean, lakes and rivers.
Workout facts: Balance is key to a successful windsurfing trip, and good balance requires overall body strength. Before giving it a try, it's good idea to work on all the major muscles and to pay particular attention to the abdominal muscles, back and legs specifically. A 150-pound person can burn up to 200 calories an hour!
• Boots with rubber surf slippers or neoprene soles to help you stay on the board
• Gloves (optional) to help keep your hands warm and provide extra grip
• Harness, which connects the rider to the rig, for the more experienced surfers to reduce strain on the arms. Beginners should learn how to maneuver the sail before using one.
• Helmet to protect your head in case the sail or board were to hit you
• Windsurfing board (generally longer and wider for beginners)
• A moveable mast or sail
Stay-Safe Strategies: Beginners should stay in enclosed waterways, avoid swimmers, and no matter what, always stay with the board, as it's the largest buoyancy aid you have. A few other tips regardless of your experience level: Be aware of signs of hypothermia (shallow breathing, confusion, a weak pulse and drowsiness); avoid collisions with swimmers, other surfers and wind surfers; and don't sail farther away from the shore than you have to.