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5 summer workouts that don't feel like work

Who says exercise needs to feel like torture? These popular activities will have you working up a sweat — and having fun while you’re at it.
Beach volleyball leagues, like this one from Zog Sports in Los Angeles, are a popular way to combine exercise and socializing.
Beach volleyball leagues, like this one from Zog Sports in Los Angeles, are a popular way to combine exercise and socializing. Allison Knight Images

Softball leagues, beach volleyball, tennis, paddle boarding, kickball, recreational flag football, swimming … there’s no shortage of outdoor activities to help you stay active during the summer months. And while you may participate recreationally (volleyball in the pool with a margarita in your hand, sound familiar?) the right activities can turn fun in the sun into a full-body workout. We’ve compiled a list of trendy workouts on our radar this summer — and broken them down by the type of person they’ll appeal to, what muscles you’ll work, and the results you can expect to see from each.

Not sure where to find them in your area? Start by visiting Google to look up recreational sports leagues in your area. For example, in Chicago there is Chicago Sport & Social Club, Players Sport & Social Group, and S3 (Simply Social Sports Leagues) that offer a variety of outdoor sports leagues. In New York, LA, DC, and a few other cities, ZOG Sports offers traditional outdoor sports and even things like ultimate Frisbee and cornhole. (While cornhole may not offer a great workout, it can still be fun to be outside and get fresh air and vitamin D!) And if you’re looking for a water workout, check out this website to find paddle boarding and kayaking in your area.

Here are our top five picks for popular summer workouts that you may want to consider:

The trend: Swimming

Try it if you: have knee or joint pain; hate to sweat; are looking for low-impact cardio options

Fitness level: Beginners who need to use a noodle all the way up to advanced swimmers.

The muscles you’ll work: Swimming is a full-body workout without the sweat and grunting! You can expect to work the arms, back, legs, glutes and core. It’s also a great cardiovascular workout and can be sped up or slowed down to meet you at your fitness level.

The results: Results include improved breath control, enhanced cardio endurance, increased lung capacity, and full-body muscle toning. You can actually swim daily as a workout because swimming recreationally isn’t as intense as swimming speedy laps or doing water drills — and is easier on your joints than cardio activities like running. And you can burn substantial calories depending on how fast you swim. A 155-pound person who swims for 30 minutes quickly will burn about 250 calories; a person who swims faster can burn up to 350 calories in 30 minutes.

The trend: Beach volleyball

Try it if you: Are a couch potato who needs motivation; are an athlete looking for a new sport; can’t sit still at the beach

Fitness level: Couch potato to athlete

The muscles you’ll work: Volleyball traditionally works the legs, arms and core.

The results: Don’t expect to get a chiseled body from playing beach volleyball a few times a week. Because this is traditionally a six-member team sport, you won't get in much cardio covering a small area of the court. Instead, expect to get stronger in your legs and a little more definition in your arms and upper back. However, the calorie burn for beach volleyball is substantially larger than playing the same sport indoors. According to Harvard Health Publications, 30 minutes of recreational volleyball indoors burns almost 140 calories. But in the sand, the calorie burn is around 350 calories!

The trend: Outdoor bootcamp

Try it if you: love high-intensity workouts; have plateaued and want to jump-start your fitness results; like group fitness, but hate the gym

Fitness level: Advanced. When exercising outdoors, you’re at the mercy of the terrain: Are there hills? Are there potholes? Are you on grass or concrete? Is it windy, rainy, cold, hot? These variables really keep your body guessing, which is why I advise outdoor summer bootcamps for advanced exercisers looking for an intense workout.

The muscles you’ll work: This is a total body workout! Many bootcamp classes combine quick bursts of cardio with strength training (like in a HIIT workout). You’ll work your legs, glutes, core, arms and back and everything in between!

The results: Many summer bootcamps meet three times a week. This is the optimal number of days per week to incorporate strength training. You will typically see 8- and 12-week bootcamps offered, which is a standard amount of time that people will begin to see substantial progress and physical transformations. Expect to see weight loss, improved muscle mass, a smaller waist, stronger legs, and toned arms as a result of doing this workout. Plus, according to the American Council of Exercise, in a traditional bootcamp class you’ll burn almost 10 calories a minute! Take that bootcamp outside on uneven pavement or grass with factors like the wind potentially making cardio and plyometric movements more challenging, and you could be burning even more than 300 calories in a 30-minute class.

The trend: Pickleball

Try it if you: Like tennis or badminton; enjoy team sports that require strategy, teamwork and fast-paced movements

Fitness level: Everyone! From someone who has never picked up a racket to a more serious tennis competitor. If you’re new to the sport, or just getting back into fitness, join at a recreational level where the competition will be less intense and you can move a little slower on the court.

The muscles you’ll work: This type of sport requires plyometrics — quick short movements to carry you from one spot to another — plus engages the arms, providing a total-body workout. Remember that playing a sport like pickleball, especially if you’re a newbie, can require some recovery time after each session. You’ll be using muscles and moving your body in a way that you’re not used to. So start with once a week and build up to 3 or 4 times per week. If you play for at least an hour a day, you can count this as a strength and cardio workout wrapped into one!

The results: You’ll gain more strength in your ankle, knee and hip joints as well as your shoulders due to the short and quick movements during each game. According to tennis, pickleball, and mental strength coach Greg Kusnierz, pickleball helps improve motor skills and cardio. He says some of his players only take a few weeks to learn how to play competitively because the learning curve is low. “Since the court is smaller, it’s easier for all levels to play together,” he says. Kusnierz also says that one of the major benefits is building camaraderie among the players. “As a new player comes in to try out the sport they all pitch in and help the person with the rules and how to hit the ball. It's a very welcoming environment,” he says.

A yoga class being led by Chicago SUP on Lake Michigan.
A yoga class being led by Chicago SUP on Lake Michigan.Chicago SUP

The trend: Stand-up paddle board (SUP) yoga

Try it if you: Enjoy boating, kayaking or being by the water; are a yogi looking for a challenge; want a mindful exercise option; need a low-impact workout

Fitness level: Intermediate yogi. It’s helpful to have gone to at least a few yoga classes so that you don’t have to learn what a basic yoga pose looks like while wobbling on your board on the water. Since you have to focus on balance, environmental factors, and following along with the routine, having a few classes under your belt on land will help you feel more at ease on the board.

The muscles you’ll work: On a paddle board you’re forced to modify your traditional yoga practice — and due to the waves and wind, no practice will be performed in truly identical conditions. The variance in environment is good for someone who wants to “go with the flow” and keep their body guessing. Your stabilizing muscles will really be firing since your center of gravity is rooted down through your core.

The results: Improved balance and focus can be expected to be gained through this workout. Doing this class three times a week would be more than enough to see progress this summer: You’ll see improved muscle tone and definition, as well as build muscle, which helps burn fat. Ian Jacobson, owner of ChicagoSUP, says that unlike a traditional yoga studio session, SUP Yoga is done entirely on the boards (which are not entirely stationary) giving an enhanced core workout. “Keep in mind our practice is catered to being on the boards. You won’t find many tree poses here, but we welcome you to try!” he says.

Whatever summer sport or outdoor workout you decide to try, remember that the one you’ll stick with is the one you enjoy the most. More than any other time of year, summer really allows us to have fun while exercising, so try a few activities until you find one that resonates with you. You may be surprised at the results you see from having a little fun in the sun.


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