Top 4 Sports for Overall Fitness

By William Wu

Finally, after those harsh, cold months of sub -20 temperatures and relentless snowfall comes the long-awaited arrival of spring. Birds singing, snow melting, plants sprouting – it’s hard not to feel cheerful at this time of year!

With the rising temperatures, many animals are also beginning to emerge from their winter-long hibernations, including us humans. No more lazing around the house, watching sitcoms, and eating ice cream… spring is a great time to get into shape! Whether or not you are an aspiring athlete, or someone who has never played a sport in his life, fitness is something that we can all benefit from. So, without further ado, I present to you my fitness Top 4’s:

Top 4 Sports to Improve Overall Fitness:

These sports were hand-picked and ranked according to their ability to improve overall fitness, based mainly on cardiovascular ability and muscle strength. Factors considered include VO2 max scores* and lactic acid thresholds of elite athletes in that sport, the number of muscles worked by the sport, the intensity of muscle stimulation associated with the sport, as well as any potential injuries associated with the sport.

Please note: these sports were chosen for their overall fitness benefits concentrating on cardiovascular and muscular benefits, as opposed to overall athleticism which includes agility, hand-eye coordination, reaction-time, and flexibility.

*VO2 max scores are a measure of an individual’s maximum oxygen consumption per kg of weight per minute (measured in mL/kg•min), and are a standard indicator of an athlete’s cardiovascular capacity.

4. Boxing: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – if you think you can throw a good punch and don’t mind taking a few in return, try boxing for a great all-around workout and stress reliever. Boxing recruits muscles from all over the body, from the legs that allow the boxer to dance around the ring, to the core which adds extra power to each punch, and of course, the upper-body muscles which initiate lightning fast punches. It’s no wonder that boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano have such rock-hard and lean bodies. As well as being an extremely intense muscular workout, the necessity of staying agile and light on your feet while throwing punches also makes boxing an excellent cardio workout. A study by the University of Capetown has shown that boxing for an hour expends the same amount of energy and burns an equal amount of calories to running 10 km! This is because the high intensity nature of boxing ensures increased metabolism and calorie burn long after the actual workout is completed.

3. Rowing:  Rowing is a sport that demands incredible stamina, muscle power, pain endurance, and mental focus to stay in perfect synchronisation with your crew members. As such, rowers are one of the toughest athletes out there, in both mental and physical respects. Unlike what many people falsely believe, the rowing stroke does not simply consist of upper-body movement. The seat of the boat actually slides back and forth with each stroke, and most of the power applied in a stroke actually comes from your legs. It is only after the initial drive of the legs that the torso begins to lean back and the oar(s) is brought into the chest with the arms. In this manner, rowing is extremely effective in developing muscle in your quads and glutes as well as your abs, lower back, lats, and traps. At the elite level, rowers are generally extremely tall and muscular people, with highly developed quad muscles and broad torsos, as seen in the Olympic Canadian Men’s Eight crew which weighed in at an average 218 lbs and an average height of 6 ft 4 in. Despite the anaerobic nature of the standard 2km sprint race, which lasts from 5 to 8 minutes, rowers, lightweight rowers in particular, tend to also have pretty high VO2 max scores as the majority of training in preparation for race day is aerobic in nature.

2. Swimming: Remember those swim lessons that you took as a kid? Well, turns out that swimming is also one of the best sports for overall muscle endurance and cardiovascular fitness. The real beauty of swimming lies in its unique ability to stretch and strengthen your muscles at the same time. Swimmers typically have very long and lean muscles, with broad shoulders, strong core, and powerful legs, all essential for propelling yourself through the water. Swimming is one of those rare sports that demands activation of all of the major muscles in your body, and is especially effective in developing and toning upper-body muscle mass, as well as core stability. In terms of cardiovascular benefits, swimming is good, but may not be the most effective exercise for developing your heart as most swim races are finished within five minutes, and thus, fall within the anaerobic category. On the other hand, the high intensity and short duration of swimming is very effective in prolonging your lactic acid threshold, which is the point in which lactic acid (the burning sensation you can feel in your muscles during a hard workout) begins to accumulate in your body.

1. Nordic skiing: So there may not be much snow left on the ground, but for those of you who are looking for a new winter sport to try next year, I highly recommend cross-country skiing. Nordic skiing takes the first place spot in our list for three main reasons: it’s low-impact, it’s a full-body workout, and it can be excruciatingly tough, in both aerobic and anaerobic sense. Cross-country skiers have among the highest VO2 max scores ever recorded, with 5 of the top 10 male world record scores and 4 of the top 8 female world record scores coming from cross-country skiers. In addition to its extreme cardiovascular benefits, cross-country skiing is also a complete total body workout, which separates it from other endurance sports like cycling and long-distance running, which rely mainly on the muscles of your lower-body. Both disciplines of cross-country skiing, classic and skate, are extremely effective in employing all the major muscles in the upper and lower body, including and especially the glutes, quads, hamstrings, abductors, abs, chest, upper back, shoulders, and tricep muscles. Finally, to top it all off, cross-country skiing is also one of the lowest-impact endurance sports, with the snow, rather than your knees, absorbing most of the impact generated by the skiing motion.