It could be the promise of summer holidays with waves lapping onto sandy shores and long days of lazing around in the sunshine. Increasingly however, it’s due to the vast amounts of exciting and energising water sports, enabling us to spend time both on and in the ocean whilst we enjoy significant physical and mental wellbeing benefits.

Over 8.5 million people each year are turning to the great outdoors for their exercise fix and the same principles of ‘green exercise’ i.e. working out in an outdoor environment can be applied to physical activity such as swimming and water sports which take place in the ocean (aka the ‘blue gym’!)

Recent evidence has demonstrated that, compared with exercising indoors, outdoor activity results in a significantly greater improvement in mental wellbeing. Feeling more connected to nature, cleaner air, and providing a significant vitamin-D boost, means ocean-based activities can lead to improved mood, self-esteem and higher energy levels. Activity holiday specialists Neilson Holidays wanted to find out exactly how we best like to embrace the sea and discover just why we’re so drawn to the plethora of water sports available to us both at home and abroad.

To find out which are our favourites, three years of Instagram posts were analysed looking at the most photographed, shared and talked about ocean activities. This latest analysis revealed that surfing is the most popular water sport by some distance followed by kitesurfing, the increasingly popular SUP, windsurfing and wakeboarding. Snorkelling, diving, jetski, bodyboarding and kayaking make up the remainder of the top 10.

Top 10 most Instagrammed water sports

1. Surfing

2. Kitesurfing

3. SUP

4. Windsurfing

5. Wakeboarding

6. Snorkelling

7. Diving

8. Jetski

9. Bodyboarding

10. Kayaking

Neilson Holidays is working with sports scientist and Sport Relief celebrity trainer Professor Greg Whyte OBE to find out why water sports are continuing to increase in popularity. Greg says:

“You will benefit both physically and mentally whatever environment you’re being active within. However, these benefits are significantly heightened when you are placed in a more extreme environment, such as the ocean.

The viscosity of water means you naturally end up working harder in the ocean, as water resists your movement so much more. However, even if you’re doing a water sport where you spend more time on the water rather than in it, research demonstrates that you are still significantly more likely to work harder. This is because green exercise (or blue exercise in this case!) alters the perception of effort, resulting in a greater intensity of exercise.

Learning a new water sport is a great example of the psychological term ‘mastering’. When you ‘master’ a new sport or new technique, the feel-good pay-out is extraordinary, and is a huge factor in keeping you motivated to progress. There is plenty to learn when mastering a water sport and this motivation could be a reason why people who do activities in the outdoors are more likely to work out for longer, more frequently and maintain an exercise programme in the long-term.”

So, with that ringing endorsement in mind, here’s some further inspiration on the five most Instagrammed water sports to get you on the water and keep you there.

1. Surfing



Far and away the most popular water sport, surfing was a central part of ancient Polynesian culture and dates back as far as the mid 18th century. Easy to try but fiendishly difficult to master, nothing beats the feeling of successfully surfing your first wave. It’s also a fantastic cardiovascular workout and, since a large part of surfing involves paddling, you get a great core and upper body workout.

2. Kitesurfing


Bringing together elements of snowboarding, wakeboarding, windsurfing, paragliding, skateboarding and gymnastics, kitesurfing is a thrilling variation of surfing using a standard surfboard and a kite which catches the air whilst you catch the waves. Because you have to constantly make quick decisions about the movement and position of the bar and board in relation to your body, you’re also significantly increasing your reflexes and reaction capacity.

3. SUP


A far more relaxed way to enjoy the ocean, SUP (or stand up paddle boarding) continues to grow in popularity, especially amongst first-time water sports participants. Using a paddle to propel yourself through the water, SUP not only offers a full body workout but also helps to reduce stress due to the soothing process of gliding through the water coupled with the rhythm of your stroke.

4. Windsurfing


Straddling both the laid-back culture of surfing and the rules-based technicality of sailing, windsurfing is a high-octane pursuit full of jumps, inverted loops and spins. In fact it’s so exhilarating that you hardly know you’re exercising. According to the Royal Yachting Association the average windsurfer spends up to six hours each day exercising without even realising it!

5. Wakeboarding


Being towed behind a motorboat at speeds of up to 25mph whilst strapped to a thin, rectangular board takes some beating in the adrenaline stakes. Originally called ‘skurfing’ due to its perfect marriage between skiing and surfing, wakeboarding significantly strengthens your arm and leg muscles. By constantly having to flex and hold positions then explode from static positions to execute tricks and techniques, wakeboarding is a workout that is hard to beat.