On Your Health

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Stressed? Get Your Paddle On!

It’s long been known that exercise is good for both body and mind, and that certain types of exercise are extra good for calming the mind. Yoga, tai chi and their ilk are the usual suspects we think of when we’re looking for ways to move our bodies, improve muscle tone and calm ourselves.

But there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that there’s a newcomer on the scene. Kayaking – yes, kayaking – is a double-paddled superstar when it comes to de-stressing.

What is kayaking?

One of the most common water sports, kayaking is relatively easy to learn and, contrary to popular belief, does not require a lot of athleticism or strength. Kayaking, at its core, is pretty straightforward. You sit in a small boat and use a double-bladed oar to paddle around. Most kayaks only hold one person, but there are models available that can carry two or three people and even your pets. Clear-bottom kayaks allow you to see wildlife in a whole new way.

There are kayaks designed for fishing, whitewater adventures, recreation or touring. Kayaks can be inflatable, and seating can be directly on top or down in an indention called a cockpit. People of all ages can generally get the hang of kayaking after a quick tutorial.

Why is kayaking good for your mind?

Nature. Being out in nature is enjoyable and it’s great for improving mood. According to the American Psychological Association, exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation.

Less stress. Kayaking cheerfully demands that you stay focused on your paddle stroke and your surroundings. When you’re intently focused on these things, your brain must stop focusing on stressors like work and life pressures. Lower stress means increased happiness.

Endorphins. Aerobic exercise triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and norepinephrine in the brain. These chemicals interact with brain receptors to minimize our ability to perceive pain. Endorphins also trigger a release of stress and a feeling of wellbeing. Sometimes called a ‘runner’s high,’ a rush of endorphins after intense exercise can create a deeply euphoric (yet short-lived) state.  

Reflection. And we don’t mean seeing yourself in the water. Social time is good for mental health, but so is solo time. Spending time in quiet contemplation can help you reconnect with yourself and feel grounded.

Fun. In case you’re wondering, play and fun are as important for adults as for kids.  Paddling across a glassy lake, seeing birds and wildlife up close and exploring near the banks is just plain fun.

It’s a break. Spending a few hours a week on the water, away from whatever is on your mind, can be a terrific mental break. Taking your mind off of your day-to-day will allow you to replenish your spirits and return with more motivation and focus. 

Kayaking is also a good, low-impact workout. Kayaking is not about brute strength. It’s definitely a cardio workout (an hour of kayaking can burn more than 350 calories depending on how hard you paddle). The water adds resistance, making it a great upper body and core strengthener.

Tips for kayaking

Dress for the water. This is important to remember. It may be toasty outside, but you’ll essentially be sitting in the water, which is cool. So dress in layers, and if you’re kayaking in fall or winter, consider investing in a wetsuit and/or drysuit.

Coast guard approved personal floatation device (PFD). Type II and Type III PFDs good for calm water where there's a good chance of speedy rescue; Type III PFDs tends to be more comfortable. Type I PFDs are for rougher water.

Bring these: sunscreen, snacks, first aid kit, sun hat, non-cotton clothing, plenty of water, a watch (ideally with GPS) and dry bags for things you don’t want to get wet. Consider a lesson. Kayaking lessons include things like how to load a kayak onto your car without hurting yourself, how to empty it out if you tip over, how to glide a kayak to shore and the ins and outs of using a spray skirt (like how to get out of it if you tip). If you’d rather just go for it without a lesson, and you’re a good swimmer, choose a lake or pond that is fairly still and have at it. 

Find your spot. Choose a pond or lake with public access. Beginners won’t want to start off in a river or the ocean because the water will be choppier. There are interactive maps at, which can point you in the right direction. Of course if you don’t own a kayak, you will probably launch from the dock or marina where you’ve rented your gear. 

Choose the day. Kayaking is at least a three-season sport, but pay attention to water temps. When the water is below 59 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll want to wear a wetsuit or drysuit; if it’s below 55 degrees, opt for a drysuit. 

How to paddle. First, determine where to hold the paddle. To do this, grab the paddle with both hands and rest it on top of your head with your elbows bent at 90-degree angles. That’s where you’ll want your hands to be. Make sure the concave side of the paddle is facing you – this will give you optimal paddle power. Set your kayak on the shore right next to the water and get in (or on). Slide the boat into the water by using your paddle to push away from the ground. Now for the fun part: make small strokes, right beside the kayak, parallel to it, and off you go!

Turning and stopping. You’ll use a ‘sweep stroke’ to turn. Here’s a nice, clear description of that maneuver from SHAPE Magazine: Take the paddle and do a big arcing stroke farther away from the boat. You're still moving the paddle from front to back—clockwise on the right and counterclockwise on the left—but making that exaggerated arc on your right will help you turn left and vice versa. To come to a stop, you'll reverse paddle (from back to front in the water).

Recover from a capsize. Until you’ve mastered what’s called an ‘open water rescue,’ which is a skill for righting and reentering a boat with the aid of another, or a self-rescue, which involves flipping the kayak over and maneuvering back into it, its best to stay pretty close to shore. This way, if you capsize, you can swim your kayak to shore, dry off and try again! 

There are also plenty of tutorials online with helpful videos and step-by-step narration. For more health and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.


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