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Comparison of Rowing & Kayaking for Exercise

author image Jodi Thornton O'Connell
A former world-class swimmer, J.T. O'Connell shares her love of adventure travel, extreme sports and pets through thousands of published articles. O'Connell studied journalism at Grand Canyon University, and brings professional experience as a tour guide and travel consultant. She authors the blog, Traveling With Large Dogs.
Comparison of Rowing & Kayaking for Exercise
Whitewater kayaking can burn up to 350 calories per hour. Photo Credit Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Rowing and kayaking can provide an efficient way to tone muscles, burn calories and get fit while enjoying the serenity of outdoor locations. Depending upon your fitness goals and access to necessary equipment, kayaking or rowing can offer hours of beneficial exercise tailored to your body's specific needs.

Necessary Equipment

While kayaking machines are beginning to make appearances in local gyms, rowing machines are fairly easy to find. For exercise in a natural setting, rowing opportunities abound using small rowboats, rubber rafts equipped with oar locks, or multi-person outriggers. Kayaks are available in one- or two-person models, with special designs for use on flatwater, whitewater or ocean settings. Inflatable kayaks provide greater stability, eliminating the need to learn rolls and giving beginning and intermediate paddlers safe access to a greater variety of waters.


Kayakers can enjoy keeping fit in smaller, narrower water bodies than those required by a boat equipped with oars. Riding higher in the water, the flat bottom and light weight of a kayak glides across shallow waters. Because the paddle is not attached to the boat, you can adapt your stroke to accommodate the water conditions you are in. Oar-propelled boats require more room to turn and deeper water to maneuver with the oars. With greater distance per stroke than a kayak paddle, they are ideal on deep rivers, lakes and ocean settings.

Muscular Impact

When rowing, two oars descend more deeply in the water, creating more resistance than paddling. The oars are attached to the boat in oar locks, creating repetitive movement for the muscles of the chest, arms, upper back and abdominals. As rowers face the rear of the boat, legs are also used to press against foot stops to propel the upper body into the oar stroke. When kayaking, the paddler faces forward, but legs also play a large role in a proper kayak paddling stroke. The legs press against the foot pegs in order to provide leverage for proper torso rotation. Predominant kayaking muscles used are the back, shoulders and core.


Greater resistance and use of 70 percent of the body's muscles give rowing the caloric advantage, with up to 600 calories per hour possible. Caloric burn for kayaking can vary greatly, depending on the type of water you are paddling and how much effort you are putting into it. Rough water kayaking, such as ocean kayaking or whitewater, can burn up to 350 calories per hour.

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