Richard Hamlin recalls his initial reaction when his wife suggested they take a kayaking trip while in the San Juan Islands: "I said, 'No, it looks like work.'"

He was half right. Kayaking can be work — as in a great workout — but it can also be a getaway from the rigors of the day. "From the very first time, I loved it," adds Hamlin, who is now an instructor at the Marina Aquatic Center in Marina del Rey, part of UCLA Recreation.

Most people kayak in one of two styles of boats. A sit-on-top, mostly used for recreation, is open, stable and fairly flat, allowing the legs to be exposed. The touring, or sit-inside, kayak allows paddlers to nestle themselves inside a cockpit with legs outstretched.

Students use a touring kayak for sea kayaking classes at the MAC, which start with basics such as paddling strokes and how to get in and out of the boat. More advanced classes cover how to paddle through waves. "You get a lot of exercise doing that," he says.

This is a sport that mostly, but not exclusively, targets the upper body. The arms are definitely moving, but other body parts are also employed. "You really use your back and shoulder muscles," Hamlin says. "And the abs provide leverage as you rotate your torso." When swells push the boat, the hips and the oblique muscles get involved: "I tell people that it's a little like doing the salsa because you lean the boat into the wave, and use your obliques to pull the boat toward the paddle."

Feet are up against pegs, and thighs get close to the hull; all are used to guide the boat. "As you move your lower body, the boat moves with you," Hamlin says.

The reward for all that hard work is being on open water and perhaps spotting a dolphin, pelican or other aquatic creature. Kayaking in groups offers camaraderie and maybe a little competition.

The workout can be relaxing too. Travis Festa, education outreach coordinator for the American Canoe Assn. in Fredericksburg, Va., says doing an easy paddle on flat water offers stress-relieving benefits. It's "definitely more of a workout than people imagine," he says.

Kayaking is becoming more popular in urban areas with sizable bodies of water, Festa adds, so there's plenty of opportunity to give the sport a try. "Just being on the water and getting away from the day-to-day grind and finding a place in the natural world is an appeal."

—Jeannine Stein