Fitness Fun: The Benefits and Diversity of Inline Skating

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Written By Christina Dendy

by Christina Dendy
reprinted from National Parks and Recreation Magazine

Skater Marathon Berlin

photo: Steffen Zahn

Inline skating, often [incorrectly] referred to as “rollerblading”, is no longer a new phenomenon. Most people today can say that they have at least one friend who packs a pair of skates, or have seen a skater whizzing by on the street or at the park, if they themselves have not indulged already. Many will have read a previous report or watched a news clip on aggressive or stunt skaters, the ever-growing inline hockey league, or speed skating. Whatever its source of exposure, inline skating has penetrated the recreation, fitness and athletic industry with a momentum largely unsurpassed in the last decade. And it’s still going.

From the modest beginnings of Rollerblade, Inc. in 1984, the inline skating industry has grown to encompass over 30 million participants (as of 1996) and several hundred companies that manufacture a wide variety of skates, safety gear, and other inline merchandise. According to the International Inline Skating Association (IISA), inline skating participation has increased 630% since 1989, and was the fastest growing sport in the United States in 1996. Although the rate of increase declined slightly in 1997, the sport itself continues to spread and diversify. Manufacturers offer an increasing range of specialized skates, including inline hockey skates, speed skates, aggressive skates, and skates designed specifically for women and fitness skaters. Likewise, attention has turned toward the development of an overland skate for the more daring enthusiast.

The defining evidence of inline skating’s successful break onto the fitness and recreation scene can be found in its demographics. Men and women participate in roughly equal numbers, with male skaters comprising 54% of the skating population and women, the other 46%. While inline skating has long been regarded predominantly as a youth sport, IISA cited 25-34 year olds as the fastest growing segment of skaters in 1995 and predicted a dramatic increase in participants over the age of 45 by the turn of the century. What could possibly appeal to such a broad spectrum of people? How could one activity, within the course of a decade, reach so many varied and assorted individuals?

The answer is simple enough to make the question seem unfair. Inline skating does not constitute one activity; it encompasses a wide range of recreational, fitness and competitive opportunities. Originating as an off-season training method for ice hockey players, inline skating has grown to encompass inline hockey and inline basketball leagues, speed skating and racing, aggressive or stunt skating, inline dancing, inline soccer, and individual or social recreation and fitness skating.

“People use the words fitness and freedom a lot when it comes to skating,” Kalinda Mathis, IISA’s executive director, replied when asked about the popularity and continuing expansion of the inline skating field. “It’s fun. It doesn’t feel like a workout. It doesn’t feel like a job. It’s good for the body and mind.”

Inline skating allows the individual to choose and gravitate among several activities depending upon personal interest or goals. Inline skating gets people outside, alone or with family and friends. It is accessible, requiring no special facilities, and relatively inexpensive, requiring no membership fees or dues. Compared to many other sports, such as bicycling, roller skating, and most contact sports, inline skating has a low injury rate. Most injuries sustained could be prevented with proper safety gear, particularly helmets and wrist guards.

The selling points of inline skating are many, but perhaps the most salient benefit–and the one that goes hand-in-hand with all the others–is that inline skating is healthy. Young or old, male or female, skating provides an excellent cardiovascular workout, as well as targeting key muscle groups throughout the body, and it is low impact. Although skating requires a certain amount of strength in the knees for balance, and anyone with previous injuries should consult a doctor prior to rolling out the door, overall, skating is easier on the joints than jogging or other aerobic exercises. Yet, as Ms. Mathis said, it does not feel like a workout.

A study conducted by Dr. Carl Foster, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and coordinator of sports medicine and sports science for the U.S. Speed Skating Team, examined and compared the effects of four different workouts upon eleven volunteers. Dr. Foster tested the oxygen uptake, heart rate and blood rate of the participants while jogging, cycling, skating steadily for 30 minutes, and skating incrementally. The results show that skating at a steady pace for 30 minutes burned 285 calories and induced a heart rate of 148 beats per minute, while interval skating expended 450 calories. In interval skating, the skater alternates between one minute skating in a tuck position and one minute skating upright. Running and cycling each induced a heart rate of 148 beats per minute as well, but cycling burned 360 calories over running’s 350.

The study reached several conclusions regarding the aerobic benefits of each activity as well. Foster’s team determined that inline skating constituted a more effective aerobic workout than cycling, since cyclists tend to glide more, while running worked the heart and lungs better than skating for the same reason. However, skaters can increase the aerobic results of their outings by skating harder or on uphill terrain.

Anaerobic tests, which measure body strengthening and muscle development, judged inline skating more beneficial than either running or cycling. Inline skating naturally builds hip and thigh muscles that running and cycling do not. Skating especially targets the hamstring muscles neglected by cycling and works muscles in the upper arms and shoulders when arm motion such as swinging is incorporated.

“Skating builds the hip and thigh muscles, buttocks, and upper legs. It works the abductor and adductor muscles–or inner and outer thighs–which can be a particular trouble spot for women,” Ms. Mathis said. “Skating at a lower stance works the legs and hips even more. It’s really more of a strength workout than a cardio, but the more you use your arms, the better aerobic workout you get.”

In addition to physical fitness benefits, inline skating and aerobic exercise in general tends to induce more positive energy overall. According to Liz Miller’s guide for inline skaters, Get Rolling, during aerobic exercise, the body releases certain chemicals called endorphines. Ms. Miller dubs this “endorphine high” as “one of the best all-natural stress-reduction therapies around.”

Inline skating can be an enjoyable and efficient workout routine. Although participation in any skating activity carries physical benefits as well as recreational diversion, 25 to 30 minutes several times a week of steady skating, building toward incremental skating and skate routes that utilize uphill and downhill paths, burns calories and works the body both aerobically and anaerobically. Moreover, the IISA and experts such as Liz Miller recommend supplementing such inline exercise with further muscle training–the abdomen, lower back, buttocks, thighs, calves, and especially the upper body–for total body fitness.

“I started out as a competitive ice skater, so inline skating was a natural transition for me. But I’ve stuck with it for the fitness,” Ms. Mathis stated. “I would recommend inline skating to anyone, but especially to adults between 30 and 50 who are looking for some sort of exercise they can do outside, or with family and friends. It feels good, it’s easy, and there’s no need to join a gym. Also, it’s low impact–easier on the knees and ankles than something like jogging–for older participants or people with a previous injury.”

Ms. Mathis and the IISA strongly encourage potential skaters to seek a lesson. Not only does instruction help to ensure a safer skating experience, it also enhances a skater’s performance. The better and safer an individual skates, the more benefits–recreational and fitness–he or she enjoys. Photographs and statistics provided by the International Inline Skating Association.

Christina Dendy
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