Calories burned: 260 to 330+*
Muscles engaged: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves; in rough terrain, biking also works the shoulders and arms
Common injuries: Falls (in high-traffic areas, collisions with cars), saddle sores, knee and lower back pain, tendonitis, neck pain
A Facebook post led Peter Kuyvenhoven to a local BMX track near his home in Langley, British Columbia. He thought his oldest son, who was just learning to ride a bike, might like to ride with other kids. Kuyvenhoven, 41, ended up on the track, too.
“There were lots of adults racing and I thought, ‘Why not me, too?’” he recalls. “It was a really positive atmosphere [with] high fives and fist bumps all around from the racers after every race.”
While he was burning up the track, Kuyvenhoven, who has been racing BMX bikes since 2014, was also burning major calories. He calls each race “an all-out sprint to the finish line,” similar to a 100-meter dash. Biking engages all the muscles in his legs while providing an intense cardio workout that burns more than 300 calories in 30 minutes.
Personal trainer Jennifer Cohen, author of Strong Is The New Skinny (Harmony), believes mountain biking and BMX racing provide the best workouts on two wheels because of the speed and varied terrain. These adrenaline-pumping sports also have the greatest risk of injuries—from scrapes and sprains to major collisions. Helmets and other protective gear are a must.
Not into adrenaline sports? Bicycling is still a great fitness activity that engages all of the muscles in the lower body. A leisurely ride around the block does not provide the same cardio workout as mountain biking or BMX racing: For the best workout, pedal fast and tackle a few hills—and remember to wear a helmet, obey the rules of the road and watch for traffic.
Calories burned: 167 to 223*
Muscles engaged: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, hips, core
Common injuries: Blisters, muscle strains/sprains, cuts, sunburn, dehydration, falls
Over the last 12 years, SharonMcCarthy has laced up her boots and hiked all of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and completed the 1,200-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail from the Smokies to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru and trekked the summit of Mount Whitney in California. And she did it all while carrying a pack on her back.
“Hiking and backpacking are aerobic without pounding the knees like running,” she says. “Hiking provides overall strength training: You can increase the weight you carry and you use muscles in a natural way, rather than repetitive movements of weightlifting.”
McCarthy started hiking when she turned 50. At the time, she was dealing with the stresses of her mother’s death and her youngest child leaving home. She says hiking is “a tonic for the mid-life trifecta,” and a great chance to get outdoors.
“I love the remote trails in the mountains but they can be inaccessible in winter so, this year, I’m exploring parts of the Carolina Thread Trail [closer to home in Charlotte] and having a marvelous time,”McCarthy says.
“Hiking is a great way to get a cardio workout and strengthen your lower body—and the steeper the incline, the more it engages your core,” Cohen says. “If you add poles, you get a bit of an upper body workout, too.”
If you prefer walking to hiking (or need a quick workout that doesn’t require driving to a hiking trail), Cohen suggests maintaining a brisk pace, choosing routes with hills and holding two- or three-pound weights to build strength and get a better calorie burn.
Whether walking or hiking, wear good shoes and stay on sidewalks or marked trails. If you plan to walk in the evening, wear a reflective vest or add reflective tape to your clothing. Hikers should also be prepared with plenty of water, snacks, layers of clothing, maps and a cell phone in case of emergencies.
Calories burned: 186 to 300*
Muscles engaged: Core, biceps, triceps, shoulders, glutes, quads
Common injuries: Muscle strains/sprains, tendonitis, rotator cuff injuries
Journalist Margaret Littman, 50, was on assignment the first time she tried stand-up paddling (SUP). She was hooked.
“It looks harder than it is,” she says. “I like that you can make it what you want: Be competitive and race. Be low-key and paddle with friends. Sit down and paddle it like a kayak. Lay prone and use your shoulders. Take SUP yoga classes.”
SUP offers more options than traditional canoeing or kayaking. It engages more muscles, too, according to Cohen. Though the boards are wide and designed for standing, gliding across the water requires balance and core strength; paddling uses the arm and shoulder muscles, and riding waves engages the glutes and quads. Littman believes SUP is easy on the joints, especially if you choose an inflatable board that provides some cushioning.
Canoeing and kayaking work the arms and shoulders; if the pace is too slow, you might not get much of a workout. Rowing—whether on a crew team or on a machine at the gym—can also be great exercise; at a vigorous pace, it burns more than 300 calories in 30 minutes while working the abs, pectorals, glutes, hamstrings, rhomboids and deltoids.
“If you really want to challenge your core and build strength, SUP is the way to go,” Cohen says.
The equipment can be expensive to purchase, but a growing number of outfitters are popping up to provide rentals and lessons. Littman was such a fan, she opened Nashville Paddle Company in 2012 to ensure SUP lessons and rentals were available in her Tennessee hometown. Sign up for a class to learn the basics.
Not near the water? No problem. “Lots of YMCAs and elsewhere have SUP yoga and fitness classes on the board in the pool,” Littman says.
There is a risk of falling off the board and into the water. A quick lesson will include instructions on how to get back on. Lifejackets should be worn as a precaution.
Calories burned: 260*
Muscles engaged: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves
Common injuries: Falls, muscle strains/sprains and tears
Laura Acosta played recreational soccer as a teenager, but the high school librarian from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, took a long break from the pitch. When she overheard a woman talking about a recreational soccer league, Acosta, 50, dusted off her cleats and got back on the field. She’s been playing in the Baton Rouge Soccer Association’s adult leagues for two decades.
“It is a great cardio workout,” she raves. “If I play the entire game [which consists of two 45-minute halves], I typically burn 600-700 calories, according to my Fitbit, and run/walk/sprint up to three-and-a-half miles,” she says. “It is not boring like jogging or swimming—at least to me those are boring—and I love the interactions we have on the field in terms of playing as a team and supporting one another and celebrating together.”
Soccer is fast-paced and it takes some skill to dribble the ball down the field, pass or block a goal. But Acosta notes there are recreational teams for players of all skill levels, and the focus is more on having a good time than it is on the score.
There are some downsides: Soccer is a team sport, so you’ll need to find a team (look for local recreational leagues through parks and recreation departments or the YMCA) and the outdoor venues mean that games can be cancelled because of bad weather. A casual three-on-three pickup game can also be a great workout and allow you to develop your skills between games.
The effort is worth it, according to Cohen, who calls soccer the ultimate fitness activity.
The stamina, endurance and agility that make soccer a great workout also make it dangerous: In addition to the risks of tripping and falling or getting hit in the head with an airborne ball, moving with (or running after) the ball requires quick lateral movements that can lead to muscle sprains or tears. Cohen’s advice: “Start slow and have fun.”
Calories burned: 223 to 409*
Muscles engaged: Core (abdominals and lower back), deltoid and shoulder, glutes, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, biceps, triceps
Common injuries: Muscle and cartilage strains/sprains, tendonitis, rotator cuff injuries; drowning is a potential hazard
Swimming torches calories. It also reduces stress, which is how Gae Polisner, 54, found herself spending more time swimming laps in the pool at her Greenlawn, New York, home. “I was going through some personal upheaval in my life and started swimming,” she recalls. “I found the water made me feel calmer and happier. I always say I feel ageless and weightless in the water.”
Cohen loves swimming because it engages multiple muscle groups from the head to the toes; serves as a great cardiovascular workout; and, thanks to the resistance of the water, builds strength, too. Swimming is also a no-impact workout, making it ideal for those with injuries. “Serious swimmers are strong and fit,” Cohen says.
Even beginners can benefit from water workouts. Join a community center or local swim club and do laps or join a recreational swim team. Membership is cheaper than installing a pool, and the indoor venues provide year-round opportunities to swim. You can also take lessons to improve your technique.
Polisner took her workouts from the pool to the open water eight years ago to take her swimming workouts to the next level.
“The scenery is ever changing [and] every day is a different challenge depending on conditions,” she says. “Some days the conditions are so beautiful that it’s both calming and completely meditative.”
Drowning is a risk, making a swim buddy essential for open-water swimmers. Boats and marine life like jellyfish or sharks can also pose potential threats. In the pool, cramping and drowning are risks (though community centers often have lifeguards monitoring swimmers).
“You’re a newbie for a week or so and then you become half mermaid (or merman),” Polisner says.
*Calorie counts for all sports are based on 155-pound person and 30 minutes of activity