Is SUP good for fitness? 3 reasons why you should add paddle boarding to your workout routine

Stand-up paddle boarding is still riding the wave of popularity, but will it get you fit?

ISLE Explorer stand-up paddleboard
(Image credit: ISLE)

Stand-up paddle boarding has been all the rage for a few years now. It's easy to see the draw – it's challenging enough to be interesting without requiring hours of pain and dedication to master (looking at you, surfing), and it can be enjoyed almost anywhere, provided there's a suitable waterway in the vicinity. If you opt for an inflatable paddle board, as most people tend to, you don't even need that much storage space. So it's a fun way to get a different perspective on the local landscape, but is there any physical benefit? Can SUPing get you fit? 

Short answer, yes. Stand-up paddle boarding is a solid workout choice for several reasons. "Paddle boarding is unique because it is an incredible core workout that enhances your balance. Proper paddling technique effectively engages your lats, abs, and shoulders," says Jimmy Blakeney, a Paddle Board Instructor-Trainer for the ACA and VP of Product at paddle board brand ISLE. "Because you're constantly maintaining your balance on the board, it also targets the smaller muscle groups in your lower body. Even the tiny muscles in your feet are activated to help you maintain balance on the water, and that benefit carries over to daily living when you're back on land."

Different kinds of SUPing will yield different benefits. Touring or racing are the best for fitness. For that, you'll need the right board – for example, the ISLE Explorer is built for travelling further distances at faster speeds. However, even just casual paddle boarding is good for your, and for that, you could pick any of the options in our best paddle boards for beginners guide. Let's take a closer look at three reasons why stand-up paddle boarding is good for fitness...

1. Great for your core strength

While paddle boarding uses almost all of your muscles, it's perhaps best for your core. The motion of paddling is a combined effort between your shoulders, arms, abs and mid-back, so they'll all be getting a good workout (not to mention you'll also need a variety of other muscles firing to keep you stable and upright on the water).

A 2016 study asked participants to paddle at three levels of difficulty and looked at how much various muscles were stimulated. 'Light' and 'somewhat hard' paddling worked the back muscles and abdominal muscles enough to boost strength there, but the external obliques only really came into play when the participants were paddling hard. (If those are your focus, you can – and in fact, should – rotate from your torso as you paddle, digging the paddle into the water, to activate those muscles.)

2. Low-impact and helps prevent injury

Stand up paddle boarding is one of those dream activities that works all your muscles a bit, but doesn't focus the strain on any one particular muscle group, making it a great cross-training activity. You're getting similar benefits to other endurance exercises like running, but none of the impact on your joints.

In fact, SUP can actually help protect against injury when built into a fitness regime that includes other, more high-impact activities. "Dynamic balance is critical to every sports endeavour, but especially when it comes to efficiency and injury prevention," explains ISLE's Jeff Hale. "If you don’t exercise the correct muscles for balance, your body spends energy compensating through smaller muscles that are ill-equipped for the task, often leading to injuries. Maintaining a powerful paddling stroke forces you into a balanced position on your board and strengthens the correct muscles for balance."

ISLE Explorer stand-up paddleboard

The ISLE Explorer stand-up paddleboard is designed for flatwater endurance paddles

(Image credit: ISLE)

3. Scalable to suit your abilities

The beauty of stand-up paddle boarding is that you can adapt it to your own abilities, and scale it up as your fitness improves. Beginner paddle boarding doesn't require much fitness at all – in fact, at a basic level it's much more of a challenge for your balance than it is your cardio fitness. Take it slow, focus on staying upright, and you'll get a nice gentle workout. 

At the other end of the scale, you can amp things right up to get a much more intense workout. SUPing can be an endurance exercise if you take your board touring, and it can also challenge your cardio fitness if you opt for racing and make speed your goal (there's more on this in that 2015 ACE study, if you're interested). ISLE says you can burn up to 430 calories her hour with casual paddle-boarding, which ups to 708 for touring, and again to around 1,125 calories an hour when racing. 

Ruth Hamilton

Ruth is a lifestyle journalist specialising in sleep and wellbeing. She has tested more mattresses than her small flat can handle and will talk at length about them to anyone who shows even a passing interest, and has had to implement a one-in-one-out pillow policy for fear of getting smothered in the night. As well as following all the industry trends and advancements in the mattress and bedding world, she regularly speaks to certified experts to delve into the science behind a great night's sleep, and offer you advice to help you get there. She's currently Sleep Editor on Tom's Guide and TechRadar, and prior to that ran the Outdoors and Wellness channels on T3 (now covered by Matt Kollat and Beth Girdler-Maslen respectively).