There is no question that kayaking is good exercise. Balancing the boat engages the abdomen and lower back muscles, while paddling is an intense upper body workout, depending on how quickly or slowly you go at it. That’s the thing: the amount of calories burned by kayaking depends on an infinite number and variety of factors. Strolling to the river’s edge, hopping in a beached boat, then occasionally reaching to grab a cold beverage from the 6-pack trailing off the stern while drifting along is not going to burn many calories. On the other hand, humping your boat over the Andes from the Peru side to reach the Amazon headwaters at the Apurímac River will burn plenty.
What are the numbers?
The foundational factors that affect calorie burn while kayaking are the weight of the paddler and length of time on the water. Harvard Health Publications reports that a 125-pound kayaker burns about 150 calories in 30 minutes. In comparison, the American Council on Exercise puts the burn rate at 283 calories per hour for the 125-pounder, 340 for a 150-pound kayaker. The basic principle is simple: the more weight you drag across the water, the more calories that get burned. In the heavyweight class, 175 pounds will get you 397 calories an hour, while 200 pounds takes it to 454 calories. Substitute those flotation bags for sandbags fore and aft.
One thing the number crunchers leave out is the type of kayak in question. The carbon fiber/Kevlar Javelin ICF Olympic sprint kayak, at 19 pounds for 17 feet of length, will scoot across the water on a lot fewer calories than the average roto-molded sit-on-top tub. Of course, the calories burned working to pay for the Olympic boat will really add up nicely. Other factors to consider are wind, current, and the speed maintained. Anything that makes it harder to paddle adds to the burn. If you really want to lose weight, increase your time on the water. Go for a paddle around the Florida peninsula from Jacksonville heading south and you will definitely need smaller paddling shorts when you beach at Pensacola.
How does kayaking compare?
Leaving aside all extraneous factors, kayaking holds its own against many other exercises. Paddling has a better burn rate than cycling 5.5 mph, but is not as effective as running 5.5 mph. A 125-pound runner will burn 454 calories in an hour. Kayaking and walking at an average of 4.5 mph are about the same, as are kayaking and skateboarding, snorkeling, and softball. Getting back to the water, swimming, water skiing and scuba diving are all better than kayaking in terms of calorie burn.
Don’t sweat it!
Kayaking is a lot of fun, and it is certainly more enjoyable than most forms of exercise. This makes it attractive to do often and for extended periods of time. You will also build muscles, increase flexibility and lower stress by hitting the water with your boat on a regular basis. It’s all good. Just make sure you don’t fill up the cargo bays on your ‘yak with snacks!