Being an adult is freaking great: You can eat all the junk food you want, sleep ‘til noon and play outside any time you want. But being all grown up also means you gotta pay attention to your health. So, of all that outside playing, what’s actually good for you? What burns the most calories? Which ones are actually dangerous, or at least annoyingly injurious? Which are the best overall? Pick-up basketball, rec-league soccer, company softball? Golf or tennis with your buddies? How about a jog or bike ride? What about pushing your skateboard down to the corner store and back?
Alongside Paul Gallo, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine and director of exercise science and wellness at Norwalk Community College, we scored some answers.
First, though, a few points from the expert: Overall, there’s a real benefit to doing the things you like to do. “One of the benefits of recreation-based sports is they’re outdoors, for the most part, and you’re doing something you really enjoy, and that part of it has a psychological benefit associated with it.” Likewise the fact that much of this stuff is outside is great during a pandemic that seems to spread most rapidly in poorly ventilated, indoor spaces. And it’s also beneficial because many people might not have regular access to their gym or even a regular fitness routine these days.
Whatever activity you do, “the worst thing you can do is go from zero to hero,” Gallo says. In other words — start slowly! If you step on the gas right away, you’ll be in an unbelievable amount of pain and soreness the next few days. Anticipate injury by having someone record you doing the sport for a few seconds. “Pay attention to what joints are being activated or are in movement,” Gallo says. Those are the parts of you that are going to be at higher risk of injury.
If, say, you jog regularly but also want to play soccer intermittently, well, those are two very different sports and intensities! In order not to become hellishly stiff after playing soccer for the first time in a while, start doing some soccer-like activities for a few minutes at the end of your runs: agility or plyometrics exercises, for example.
Lastly, don’t take this stuff too seriously. Anyone who’s played in an adult league has come across those occasional turds who play basketball too ferociously, or try to literally kick the other team off the soccer field, or take out their wild-eyed aggression with their softball bat or tennis racket. “If it starts to become a stressor where you’re really concerned about the performance side and you start to get a negative effect from that, then I’d consider looking at some other forms of exercise that you’re not going to take so seriously that can result in a little more relaxation,” he says.
Now, let’s see how different sports stack up. All calorie info came from here: It’s based on how many calories are burned per hour for a 160-pound person.
Calories burned per hour: 576 to 900, depending on speed
Most common injuries: Runner’s knee (obviously), Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis
It will probably not surprise you that activities like running, biking and swimming burn the most calories. “Whatever performance is going to require large, rhythmic movement for a prolonged period of time is going to have the highest caloric expenditure,” Gallo says. Of course, the great thing about running is how simple (if not easy) it is.
Calories burned per hour: 576 to 864
Most common injuries: Knee/back pain, head injuries, urogenital problems
Just like running, a lot matters on how hard you’re riding: The low end is around 12 miles per hour, mountain biking is somewhere in the middle and the higher end is up to 19 miles per hour (you can burn 1,188 calories per hour if you’re hauling ass at 20 miles per hour or higher). Cycling is obviously a little more dangerous than a lot of these activities when you throw cars in the mix — 857 cyclists died in 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. Just ride safe, and wear a helmet — try not to let it stop you from enjoying any kind of ride.
Calories burned per hour: 576
Most common injuries: Ankle sprains, Achilles/knee tendonitis
Hoops can burn a surprising amount of calories. “Basketball or court-based sports are more anaerobic in nature, and that can yield a much higher heart rate and expend much higher calories with an intensity that you’re perceiving, even though it’s not as long a duration,” Gallo says. “You’re never going to play basketball as long as you’d run a half marathon. But I think that large, rhythmic upper and lower body movements are going to have high caloric yield associated with them.”
Calories burned per hour: 504
Most common injuries: Ankle/knee sprain, calf strain, foot fracture, meniscal tear
Kind of like with basketball, soccer will get your heart rate up and expend more calories than you think you’re burning, compared to going for a run and feeling every second of the steady burn.
Calories burned per hour: 504
Most common injuries: Ankle sprain, knee tendonitis, tennis elbow (duh)
Slow and steady activities like running or cycling tend to trigger overuse injuries (tendonitis, etc.) just like sports such as tennis or softball — it just depends on which joints you’re using (or, actually, overusing).
Calories burned per hour: 360
Most common injuries: Shoulder/elbow pain, wrist/finger sprains
Company softball feels like it takes very little effort, and it’s a different kind of workout from aerobic activities. It’s more intermittent, and involves a lot more sitting and standing. It’s hard to believe that recreation-league softball burns this many calories, but it obviously beats doing nothing at all — partly because there’s often beer involved.
Calories burned per hour: 360
Most common injuries: Bruises, strains, sprains, broken bones, concussion
Most skateboarders feel like a wet, unsqueezed sponge by mid-skate session, so 360 calories seems pretty low. Depending on how hard you’re skating it can obviously be a dangerous sport, but there’s little harm in pushing around.
Lastly, since we’re talking about health, Gallo says to be mindful of what you do around the activity: All this talk about burning calories means a lot less if you’re offsetting them with a few beers in the parking lot next to the softball field or after your soccer game. It’s a bit like taking your kid to a fast food joint after his or her game as a treat.
Still, when you’re off to get food or on your way to the convenience store for booze, making the trip on a bike or skateboard is a far healthier way to do it than getting in your car and driving — which burns between 150 and 250 calories per hour, in case you were wondering.