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posted: 10/29/2012 6:00 AM

Mix up your exercise routine with kayaking

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  • Sharon King kayaks on Patriot Lake at Shelby Farms in Memphis with her Lab-border-collie mix, Ashok. King said she mostly runs for exercise, but has turned to kayaking to work her upper body and core.

    Sharon King kayaks on Patriot Lake at Shelby Farms in Memphis with her Lab-border-collie mix, Ashok. King said she mostly runs for exercise, but has turned to kayaking to work her upper body and core.
    Scripps howard news service

By Don Wade
Scripps Howard News Service

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- When compared to the legions of runners and cyclists out there, kayaking might seem to be for the odd and the few.

Or at least that's how Rob Humphreys was sort of made to feel when a friend of his wife's said to him, "Why did you have to pick the most random hobby available?"

Rob, care to answer that one?

"This is what I tell everybody, and it's the truth," Humphreys, 32, says. "I was in search of a hobby. I had tried golf, took lessons and everything, and learned I was terrible at golf. And it's not all that good for fitness."

So, about three years ago, Humphreys chatted up another friend who was a kayaker, and now he kayaks once or twice a week; he also runs and bikes. But if kayaking is in some way "random" because you need a lake or a river as opposed to the road right outside your house, it also is the tonic to exercise as a mind-numbing routine.

"I see machines in a gym as a torture chamber," says 58-year-old Linda Weghorst, who also runs and bikes but finds her greatest fitness fun on the water in her kayak.

"It's the perfect combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise," she explains. "I do the harbor three times a week. It's no strain on one particular part of your body, like running. It's good for your core and your upper body. And it's so comfortable when you're in the boat and have a good stroke."

Sharon King, 51, runs half-marathons, and she, too, found kayaking an excellent way to obtain upper-body strength while getting to exercise outdoors. She kayaks a few times a month -- she also hikes and does yoga -- and says that when paddling, "I don't have to worry about working out that day, but I really am working out. You're even using your legs to help stabilize the boat."

Joe Royer, co-founder of the Outdoors Inc. outfitter and the now-31-year-old canoe-and-kayak race in Memphis, says paddlers prize their freedom and their time in nature.

"They don't want to be sitting on an exercise bike or on an elliptical watching CNN at some gym," Royer says. "They want to see the blue heron fly."

Kayaking allows them to do that, not that beautiful birds of flight are the only creatures out there.

"On the Wolf River, snakes are all over the place," King says.

By "all over the place," she means in the water and sunning on overhanging branches that unsuspecting paddlers pass underneath.

"And you do bump into branches," she says. "We were on a float trip ... and we saw 16 snakes -- some were water snakes; some were copperheads and cottonmouths. And they were huge. But I'm from Louisiana, so I'm used to snakes."

More of a danger than snakes, Royer says, is man's failure to respect his surroundings and understand his own limitations. To paddle safely on the Mississippi River and other large bodies of water, "You need skill, and you need judgment," especially during windy conditions or when barge traffic is present. "Bravery is not cool. Bravery will get you in trouble."

Royer also says proper form goes a long way toward making the kayaking experience efficient and injury-free: "A good forward stroke -- don't slump, hold your back straight."

Says Weghorst: "A good stroke takes a lot less energy than a bad stroke."

Nor does a paddler have to be overly big and strong.

"My wife, Carol Lee, is about as big around as a broom handle, but she's a very skilled paddler," Royer says.

King is 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds. Her plastic kayak weighs about 40 pounds, and so does her dog and frequent kayaking companion -- Ashok, a Lab-border-collie mix.

"I've got an extra 40 pounds in my boat, and she doesn't contribute," King says with a laugh.

Although Humphreys spent around $3,000 for a solo Kevlar composite boat (kayaks also come in tandems), and his is especially lightweight and durable, one doesn't have to spend nearly that much to get started. Weghorst says she purchased a 10-foot solo kayak with paddle and life vest for around $500.

"It's a low-impact sport," says Royer, 64. "There are a lot of good 70-year-old kayak racers."

Meanwhile, Humphreys is here to tell you that kayaking is neither "random" nor burdensome just because there's not a lake or river right out your front door.

"It's not a big hassle," he says. "Just throw (your kayak) on top of the car and go."

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