Consider the beauty of the human torso, a fancy hunk of biologic equipment designed to transfer energy and movement out through arms and legs. But it can only do so properly when the muscles that shroud the torso from shoulders to hips are toned, fit and tuned ready to release the force that physical trainers and therapists refer to as "core strength."
Next, consider the abundance of flat-water rivers, canals, reservoirs and recreational lakes in and around the greater Sacramento area. These are some of creation's finest natural gyms.
Put your human torso in a little boat, plop the little boat on a waterway, make that craft scoot around by muscle power.
You've just discovered one of the best methods for building core strength. Plus, for no extra cost, you'll score outdoor fun, scenes of natural beauty and respite from summer's heat.
One early convert to the paddler's lifestyle was Bill Van der Ven of Sacramento. Twenty years ago, this Air Force veteran found himself marooned in an office job, growing bored and rather thick around the waist. He had dreamed of owning a canoe since he was a kid. He coped with his midlife crisis by deciding to charge out and buy one. Soon, he was paddling four days a week, sometimes both before and after work.
"I had been pretty soft and porky," Van der Ven said, "with not a clue about how much outdoor recreation was right here around Sacramento. After that canoe became a permanent fixture on top of my van, I lost a good 20 pounds, greatly enhanced my upper-body strength, improved my diet and even enjoyed a kind of rebirth in my mental attitude. That change was really night and day."
He left the office to work as a trainer and guide for two of the top paddling outfitters, Current Adventures and California Canoe & Kayak, then wrote a series of guidebooks to the best paddling destinations in the state. You can order them from the publisher at www.fineedge. com/ BOOK%20LISTS/paddling.html.
Van der Ven, 63, still hews to the vigorous life as a sportsman and outdoor writer.
Flat-water paddling won't inspire everyone to pursue such a big makeover. However, physical therapist Beverly Biondi says almost anyone can benefit from the activity if they choose thoughtfully from the many available options.
"Many benefits occur because proper paddling movement rotates the spine," Biondi said. "As you rotate, it works the oblique muscles in the abdomen, the paraspinal muscles in your back. Then, the pulling motion on the paddle shaft works the latissimus dorsi across the back, as well as deltoids and other shoulder muscles."
Biondi, 51, has homes in Marin County's Muir Beach and at Cape Cod, Mass., where she practices. She began sea kayaking 22 years ago on San Francisco Bay and soon found herself racing in fast, narrow craft called surfskis. Now she has added a stand-up surfboard, or SUP, to her quiver of fitness tools and toys.
"For people who might have problems with their feet, knees and ankles, I will prescribe a fitness program where they can sit in kayaks," says Biondi. "For others, with lower-back issues like a herniated disc, standing up to paddle on a SUP board is better. But in all cases, a great aspect is that you can move completely at your own speed, find a rhythm and a tempo that works for you anything from slow and meditative to fast and furious."
There are many more muscle groups that can be worked on in core fitness. For a good primer, visithttp://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/abdominalcorestrength1/a/NewCore.htm
Also, many methods exist to improve core fitness and strength. They include Pilates, Swiss ball workouts, even old-fashioned push-ups.
But the chief charm of flat- water paddling is that your workouts can occur in fresh air and at prime outdoor locations. Add a bit of camping or fishing, if you like, or move on to ocean tours, or even racing. Training for the water segment of Eppie's Great Race on the lower American River has turned a lot of people on to the sport, says Dan Crandall of Current Adventures.
"Resistance training on water is one of the best exercises there is," says Kim Sprague, a trim and fit 60-year-old and a certified sports-medicine trainer at the Cool Fitness gym (located in Cool, naturally). "Water is a forgiving medium. Our bodies are mostly fluid, and on water we're encouraged to move fluidly.
"You don't need to go hard unless you're trying to race. Even then, a 100-pound woman can do as well as a 200-pound guy, since paddle technique is all about finesse. But when you're not racing, well, just stretch out, warm up and go drop your stress on a beautiful lake somewhere. Water is two-thirds of everything. Shouldn't we learn how to use it?"
How does one start? First, pick out a style of craft to try. Rent many times before you buy. Canoes aren't as popular as they were decades ago, but they still teach teamwork, carry loads of camping gear quite well and make fine trout-fishing platforms. Sea kayaks remain versatile craft for casual recreationists or serious adventurers. The advent of sit-on-top kayaks which demand far fewer skills opened up paddling in calm areas to just about everyone. SUP surfboards, now surging in popularity, are attractive craft in terms of their simplicity, though when winds blow or waves rise, the difficulty of using them shoots up, as well.
"I'd tell people to start off by just taking a lesson from some reputable company, like Sea Trek, Current Adventures, or CC&K (California Canoe & Kayak)," said Diane Poslosky, longtime director of Environmental Traveling Companions an organization in the Bay Area that provides outings to the disadvantaged.
"Learn basic safety and how to assess a situation. Go to a paddling symposium and try different boats. Join a club and find some new friends to do it with, then take off to explore the sport."
Poslosky, 57, took her first lessons 27 years ago.
"I wouldn't mind if my car got stolen," she said. "But now, I'd truly hate it if anyone took my kayak! It's brought me so much pleasure, fitness and sanity, and borne me off to so many amazing experiences."
Schools: Sea Trek, www.seatrek.com
California Canoe & Kayak, www.calkayak.com
California State University, Sacramento, Aquatic Center, www.sacstateaquaticcenter.com
Clubs: River City Paddlers, www.rivercitypaddlers.org/HTML/Club.html
Bay Area Sea Kayakers, www.bask.org
the California Floaters Society, www.cfsonline.org
Western Waters Canoe Club, www.westernwaterscanoeclub.org
Central California Canoe Club, www.carlwoodard.com/c4
Locations: Lake Natoma, Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=500
American River Parkway, http://www.msa2.saccounty.net/parks/Pages/default.aspx
Loon Lake and Crystal Basin, http://comspark.com/eldorado/crystalbasin.html
Cosumnes River Preserve, www.cosumnes.org
Elkhorn Slough, www.elkhornslough.org