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The Top 5 Water Activities for Burning Calories

Build muscle, burn fat, and transform your body with these aquatic workouts.

Working out in the water is one of the best ways to get your heart rate pumping, tax your muscles from new angles, and burn fat even faster than you would on land.

Some of the most fun water activities can actually be amazing workouts too—as long as you actually know how to keep your head above water. (Plus, no one will notice how much of a sweaty beast you become when you’re getting your heart rate up.)

Here are five activities that you should add to your routine to help burn calories—plus our expert’s advice on why they're great for you. Note: Calorie counts for each activity are estimated based on a 180-pound man doing the activity for 30 minutes.

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Whether it's freestyle or butterfly, swimming is one of the best ways to build and preserve muscle mass, optimize cholesterol levels, and lose fat. “Swimming is, hands down, the best water workout for you,” raves Gunnar Peterson, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer based in Beverly Hills. “It has low impact on your joints, works muscles on your lower and upper extremities and, depending on how long you're swimming, can definitely improve your cardiovascular ability.”

But you can’t just bob around in the water and call it swimming—you'll actually have to work at it. And if the prospect of swimming laps bores you to death, try turning your swim into sets. First, take 10 strokes with your arms. Then 10 strokes with just your legs. Then 10 with your legs and arms. Take a breather and repeat.

Calories burned: Up to 450

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“Kayaking gives you that upper-body component that you don’t get in more traditional cardiovascular workouts,” Peterson points out. Paddling works your biceps, triceps, shoulders, and upper back. (Try going backwards to mix it up and keep your muscles loose.) It also hammers your core, which is responsible for transferring the force you generate from the paddle to the hull of the kayak. And even though your legs aren’t necessarily moving, they’re used in turning and balancing the kayak. When the muscles in your legs tighten, you get an isometric exercise, which is good for increasing strength over time.

Calories burned: About 205, depending on conditions

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Stand-up Paddleboarding

This sport—SUP, as it’s affectionately known—is just as good as kayaking, and arguably more demanding because it taxes your lower body as well. “You have to balance yourself, so your quads, hams and glutes are engaged the entire time,” says Peterson. (Trust us, you’ll feel the burn in arms, legs and core the next day.) Even the muscles in your feet work hard, since you'll find yourself needing to grip the surface of the board as you stand on it. SUP builds endurance and balance, giving your entire body a complete cardio workout—in fact, some experts say that 30 minutes of SUP is equivalent to running six miles. Don't underestimate the power of the wind, either—paddling into even a strong breeze can dramatically increase the difficulty of a trip.

Calories burned: At least 123 (the rougher the wind and waves, the harder you work.)

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Getting out into the surf is as physically demanding, if not more, as the ride back into the sand. “Just paddling out gives you a huge upper back and shoulder workout,” Peterson says. Then, once you’re riding a wave, your lower body, core and shoulders take a beating: A wave hits the board with tons of force and your muscles instinctively contract. Factor in the instability of the water and your core muscles are getting a major workout.

Calories burned: At least 125 (again, the rougher the waves, the harder you work).

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Waterskiing / Wakeboarding

“If you’re new to the sport, your heart rate is going to be elevated from the sheer fear of it all,” Peterson says. If you’re more accomplished (meaning, you can actually get up and going), it’s a great lower- and upper-body workout that also involves your core. It takes a good degree of arm and shoulder strength just to pull your body out and onto the water. From there, your legs and core are constantly engaged throughout the entire ride. A successful water-ski run is basically a prolonged wall sit—but without the wall's support, and with the resistance of the water.

Calories burned: About 245

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