Is Stand Up Paddling Really Exercise?

Is stand up paddling really exercise?
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Written by: Jodelle Fitzwater, Copyright Get Fit with Jodelle 2014

It’s 4am.  I can’t sleep.  For I know that in just a few hours when the sun comes up, I am going to hit the water, just me and my SUP and the world wide open. And the early morning light can’t come soon enough. Living on a huge man-made lake in the Midwest, my favorite thing to do is grab my board, and start my cadence in the quiet hours of the morning.  Do I get winded? No.  Do I break a sweat? Sometimes?  Do I feel my heart pounding out of my chest?  Only when the excitement and rush hit me as I think about how much I love what I’m doing. 

Sometimes I’m out there for 45 minutes, sometimes I’m out there for 3 hours.  I don’t set a time limit unless I have another engagement.  I just go.  I just want to go, so I go. And when I’m done, I stop. And I’ve never been in better shape in all of my fitness career.  How can this be?  I’ve run half-marathons, taught 3 classes of boot camps a day, been an avid yogi for 13+ years, taught kickboxing, aerobic classes, and used to bike 15 miles a day on some very hilly terrain.  Yet, suddenly after doing SUP for 6 years, at 33 years of age, I feel more fit than ever! This exercise seems to resonate with my body more so than anything else.  Yet, does SUP really qualify as exercise? Let’s explore…

“What is the best form of exercise?” As a fitness trainer for over a decade, I get this question a lot.

My Answer: “The one you are going to do forever. That’s the best exercise.”

See, the way I look at it, there are several factors around what makes an activity “exercise” and what makes an activity “meaningless movement” And you should know that if weight loss is your goal, one of them is going to be much more affective than the other.  So here are the factors we will consider to determine if Stand Up Paddling is truly a form of exercise that will get you the results you are looking for:

What is Physical Exercise?

is sup really exercise 6Physical exercise is any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness.This is the definition you will find in Wikipedia for exercise.   If we hone in on “enhances.. overall health and wellness”, can you really say that doing something you despise, like running or walking uphill on a treadmill” enhances your overall health and wellness.  Let me explain.  Let’s say you are headed to the gym after a long day at the office, only to force yourself on a large black machine, all the while just trying to just get through the next 60 minutes you will spend going nowhere fast. 

Bear you mind, you hate running.  While you burn quite a bit of calories running or walking uphill, you hate every minute of it.  This is not exercise.  This is merely an activity you have chosen which is inducing a stress response upon your endocrine system and telling your body, “We are not happy.  We are under stress.  Please do not burn fat for energy.  We are in crisis mode.” And therein lies the reason that so many people you see in the gym year after year look the same.  They insist that the only way to lose weight is punish themselves with meaningless movement they can’t stand. 

Now, granted perhaps there are some who thoroughly enjoy jumping on a treadmill and pounding out while watching reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond”.  (I used to be one of them).  But upon closer examination of what invigorates and ignites passion, pleasure, and resonates with our human need for fresh air, nature, and sunshine, not to mention “enhancing overall health and wellness”, I’m pretty sure being a stuffy gym, with electronic equipment all around you, and mass quantities of electromagnetic fields robbing you of energy, this shouldn’t be considered exercise.  If this shouldn’t be considered exercise than what should? Below I’ve compiled a list of qualifications based on the definition of physical exercise.

Physical exercise that “enhances overall health and wellness” should be something that: 

Induces a relaxation response

is sup really exercise 7Anytime the body is in “stress mode” and the sympathetic nervous system is trying to protect you, your brain will send signals to store fat for energy, in the event of the apparent ensuing crisis. You will be hard pressed to ever feel stressed about Stand Up Paddling.  More often, something like paddling on a quiet cove, or next to a pod of wild dolphins is going to induce relaxation, and calm-ness within.  Perhaps catching that sweet little wave, and the euphoria that comes along with it after paddling out beyond your favorite break resonates complete relaxation throughout your nervous system.  This tells your body:  “We are okay.  We are moving and feeling good.  Endorphins are flowing.  It’s okay to let go of stored body fat for energy.  This is not a crisis.”

You look forward to

To enhance overall health and wellbeing, we must have things in life to keep us motivated to move.  If we hate running or hate the elliptical, and we dread going to the gym, this is not something you lay awake at 4am anticipating the excitement of.  Rather, you’ll more likely hit the snooze, and begin to look forward to that sugar-laden Starbucks latte.  How well will grinding it out for an hour in spin class enhance your overall health and wellness if you loathe every turn of the pedal?  Yet, doing something you love such as Stand up paddling, invokes excitement, enthusiasm and gives you a fresh dose of what I call, “Vitamin P” or “pleasure”. 

Check this out: Research has shown that exercise (or what we are defining here as exercise) induces more dopamine, your “pleasure” hormone in the pleasure center of the brain.  I find it hard to believe that pounding it out on the treadmill could induce that if you are staring at the time clock waiting for it to change, hating every moment.  On the flip side, I’ve yet to see any one of my SUP clients meet me at the water and say, “Man I dread this.” And I’ve physically watched that dopamine pour through people’s brain when they first stand up on a SUP.

Can take any length of time desired

is sup really exercise 4When did this notion of “I have to get at least 20 minutes in or it doesn’t count” take hold?  When was it that there was carved in stone a law that read that exercise has to 30-60 to obtain any kind of benefit?  We are a society that’s plagued with standards that creep into our minds and put so much pressure on us to perform. These have been ingrained in us to make us feel as if we can’t get at least 20 minutes of high intense cardio or heavy weights, or an hour at the gym, or make it to power yoga class that nothing else will be of any value and less than that will be wasted time.  Not so in my opinion.

Isn’t some movement better than no movement, and shouldn’t it be movement you enjoy?  Life is just too short for activities that cause us stress and require time that we would rather put towards pleasurable activities.  What if you could de-stress and lose weight from an activity you look forward to?  Wouldn’t that revolutionize the idea of exercise?  I theorize, based on my own research with my clientele and myself, that even just 15 minutes of Stand Up Paddling can do more for the body than an hour in a killer cardio bootcamp. Why? On to our next point…

Does not have to be intense

is sup really exercise 1Our bodies are NOT meant to be under large amounts of chronic stress, be it the stress of running a household or a business, or the stress put on the body running intensely for an hour. (Don’t get me wrong, I love running, but if you don’t, then don’t put your body through it.)   Our ancestors didn’t tend to the farms by running through the fields as fast as they could for an hour spreading seed as they went.  They did “meaningful” movement throughout their day because they were passionate about planting, growing, and harvesting food for their family.  Enhancing overall health and wellness means you are building up the body, rather than tearing it down and creating stress and also doing something you find meaningful. 

Intensity causes stress. Stress prevents weight loss, and causes disease within the body.  I say, rather than intensity, we need “Immensity” or an immense love for what we put into our day.  If you don’t immensely love it, or have a passion for it,  don’t do it.  Immense passion or pleasure creates feel good neurotransmitters, calms the nervous system, fuels the neuro-chemicals that ignites creativity and learning, and gives life meaning.

Is about taking care “overall”

is sup really exercise 2When you think of exercise, you think of hammering it out on some piece of cardio equipment or in an aerobics class of chronic cardio junkies (I can say it that way because I used to be one).  But traditionally these classes, or cardio done on a machine such as a treadmill only works your lower body specifically  Leaving your upper body flabby and weak.  (I can say this because I used to have the biceps that only a meerkat would envy). But if we consider the word “overall” wouldn’t that mean that if something was truly “enhancing overall health and wellness” it would need to work OVER ALL of the body? 

Meaning, shouldn’t something termed exercise work all parts of the body so that none is lacking?  Stand up paddling can attest to this.  For it is the one sport I have found that builds leg strength and balance, promotes a solid, anatomical position for the body to move in, utilizes the upper body for stroking, is all held together by how hard the core (essentially the abs, hips, and low back) during every movement through the water, and keeps your heart rate up, and your breath flowing.  Not only that, but you can perform almost any land movement on the board to create a total body “overall” workout without ever stepping foot off your board.  Over all of your body, every part is working.

Based on these conclusions, we can clearly define SUP as exercise in which your overall health and wellness is enhanced; whether you go out for a leisurely paddle on a quiet cove, or brave the swell on an epic surf sesh.  But it begs us to ponder the issue of whether or not all those other so called “exercises” of meaningless movement we do actually do benefit the body.  Of course, stand up paddling might be just a few of the meaningful activities that bring you pleasure and that you make a part of your daily life.  And that’s great!

Just be sure that if your goal is to get fit, lose inches, build a better body, and enhance overall health and wellness that you are not stressing the body out with meaningless movement of mundane proportion, along with too much intensity that breaks down the body rather than building a better one.  We have enough stress to deal with in this world. It’s time to choose “meaningful movement”.  It’s time to give back to our bodies so that it can respond with overall health and wellness.  So, grab your board, grab your paddle and get your dose of “Vitamin P” that will turn that stress into sanity, and turn that intense feeling into an immense feeling of movement you love. This is true physical exercise that enhances us.

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Fitness Host for SUP TV, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, PaddleFit Coach Training Instructor, & Certified Nutrition Coach.

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