- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

Forget about counting calories or carbs. District resident Karen Werth says her fellow rowers joke they can pretty much eat what they please.

Ms. Werth, president of the District-based Capital Rowing Club, says the typical rower is a healthy eater, but the sport helps burn any extra calories taken in.

Rowing might seem like nothing more than a quaint part of the Olympic sports scene, but many people use the sport to ease stress, burn calories and provide a full-body workout. And it does all that without jarring or jolting the joints.

Whether a rower chooses sweep rowing, using one long oar or scull rowing, using two shorter oars, the sport can be a boon for the body.

Ms. Werth, whose rowing season runs from the end of March to the beginning of November, says neophyte rowers often get the bug while working in an eight-person scull.

“They swing together and suddenly you’re moving the boat. There’s a high with that,” she says. “After six months, they see physical changes. They lose some weight, they feel better.”

Running may be addictive to some, but Ms. Werth will take the water route, thank you.

“I personally hate running. It’s too much impact [on my knees],” the 41-year-old says.

Age isn’t much of an issue in rowing, making it a sport to grow old with, she says.

“We have rowers as young as their early 20s,” she says, adding the group’s oldest competitive rower is 64 years old.

“I’d row with him in a heartbeat,” says Ms. Werth, who first joined the Capital Rowing Club eight years ago as a novice.

Technically, anyone can join the Capital Rowing Club, but Ms. Werth says potential members need some rowing experience before signing up. Toward that end, the group provides novice training sessions and other programs geared toward the neophyte.

Judy Geer, a former Olympic rower and marketer for Vermont-based Concept2 rowing equipment, says rowing works out the body’s core: the abdominal and back muscles.

“The core contributes to balance and general coordination,” Ms. Geer says. “The big thing core [does] is support your back.”

She says rowers have told her the sport helped them shed weight, lower their cholesterol levels and reduce their diabetes medication.

“The important thing is to start gradually, especially if you’ve only been biking or running and you haven’t done any upper-body exercise,” she says.

She says many other exercises will offer similar rewards, but the nonimpact aspect of rowing makes it available to a wide array of people.

Rowing obviously engages the upper body, but the structure of the boat ensures the rower’s legs get a workout, too.

“You’re sitting on a sliding seat. On every stroke you’re compressing your legs… and then you’re straightening them out again,” she says.

The sport also allows for a measure of versatility. Rowers, or scullers as they are sometimes called, can row hard for short periods or maintain a strong, steady pace for a spell.

“There’s a drive phase and recovery phase. You get a little bit of a rest in every stroke,” she says.

Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, says the sport is a good whole-body conditioner.

“You really need to have pretty good levels of muscular fitness,” says the San Diego-based fitness expert. “It’s also a very good aerobic conditioning activity.”

The legs, arms, back and abdominals are all called upon to help propel the boat through the water. That helps distribute the stress on the body evenly, which leads to less injury, he says.

Mr. Bryant says rowing isn’t as good a calorie-burner as some weight-bearing exercises such as running, but it is superior to cycling. Anyone looking to pick up the sport should make sure they have had some aerobic conditioning before stepping into a boat.

“Ideally, you want to have been doing some conditioning activities for the major muscle groups of upper and lower body,” he says. Conventional weight training helps too, even a simple push-up or chin-up to build upper-body strength, “just to get all those major muscle groups conditioned,” he says.

Rowers shouldn’t expect to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger from his bodybuilding days after just a few trips up and down the river.

“You’ll increase muscle endurance more so than muscle size,” he says. An inactive person, though, might see some moderate muscle gains.

Rowing isn’t necessarily for everyone, however. Those with lower-back problems might find the required body trunk flexing puts stress on the lumbar region of the spine.

Dr. Bruce Zinsmeister, a cardiologist at the Washington Hospital Center in Northwest, says the aerobic benefit of rowing comes with the constant motion, “elevating your heart rate at a certain level and keeping it there over time.”

“If you’re doing sprint rowing, you’re probably not going to gain as much benefit [aerobically],” Dr. Zinsmeister says. “The data on exercise benefits is that moderate exercise over a long period of time conveys a better benefit than extreme exercise.”

Scullers often have cardiac endurance rates that match marathon runners. Moderate rowing for 30 minutes or more at least three times a week also can increase upper-body muscle strength, he says.

Ms. Werth says rowing also provides a mental workout along with the huffing and puffing.

“By the time you get to that third set, you’re tired. You’re on a boat with seven other people who are tired, too, but there’s no stopping. It’s not even an unspoken rule. One of the perks of rowing is that there’s a team aspect to it.”

Not everyone catches on to the sport’s rhythms all at once, she adds. Even those who do may spend years, if not decades, perfecting their technique.

“That turns some people away, but that’s the challenge that keeps most of us there,” she says.

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