Hawai‘i researchers study intensity of outrigger canoe paddling and its benefits

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Outrigger canoe paddling is not only the state’s official sport but it’s one of the most culturally significant activities in Hawai‘i with a history dating back thousands of years.

There are outrigger canoe races throughout the state every year. As many as six paddlers will power a single-hull canoe to compete in long- and short-distance races. Kona’s Queen Lili‘uokalani Canoe Race is considered the largest race in the world.

Between March 7 to 10, 58 paddlers from three islands across 30 canoe clubs came together to participate in the AccessMETs pilot study, seven years in the making, at O‘ahu’s Mauliola Keʻehi. Photo credit: John Eggebrecht

Born out of her love for paddling and its community, Simone Schmid, now a post-doctoral researcher at University of Hawai‘i, decided to focus her dissertation on measuring benefits the sport has to people with and without disabilities.

Between March 7 to 10, 58 paddlers from three islands across 30 canoe clubs came together to participate in the AccessMETs pilot study, seven years in the making, at O‘ahu’s Mauliola Keʻehi (Sand Island Boat Ramp).

During those three days, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa public health researchers outfitted four out of six paddlers per boat with a portable metabolic analyzer to monitor their bodies during a 45-minute paddling session.

The data collected is to determine how vigorous it is for those with and without a spinal cord injury by looking at metabolic equivalents, or METs, which measure calories or energy expenditure a person burns when engaged in paddling.


“While many sports and activities, such as walking, running or lifting, have established their METs, outrigger canoe paddling — an important, culturally relevant activity in Hawaiʻi and beyond — has yet to be measured,” said Schmid, who is the lead researcher for the study in the Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health and the Hawai‘i Department of Health, Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division. “Establishing the corresponding METs will be instrumental in demonstrating the scientific benefits of paddling, including for paddlers who have physical disabilities.”

With the study now complete, all that’s left is to tabulate the data, which Schmid said could take a few months. Her hypothesis is the results will show paddling is a moderate to vigorous activity for those with and without spinal cord injuries. The goal is to deliver individualized reports to paddlers who participated in the study.

“I got to paddle with friends and meet some really great people who all came together for the benefit of helping the community and this important pilot project,” said veteran paddler Donna Kahiwaokawailani Kahakui, a Hawaiʻi Waterman Hall of Fame Inductee, who supported the study as a participant and community advisor hui member. “Hopefully it will continue on and it will get better and better each year that it can go.”

Schmid’s research began in 2016 during her time as a public health doctoral candidate. While working on her dissertation with AccesSurf Hawai‘i, she identified a scientific gap in measuring METs during paddling and surfing activities, targeting both individuals with and without disabilities. This became the focus of her project, addressing the unique needs of the community.

In doing her dissertation, Schmid held a talk story where she asked the paddling community what they thought they needed.


That’s when they asked for metabolic equivalents, hard data to reveal the vigorousness of the ocean-based activity. Schmid is also passionate about health equity in the community and the available activities for those with disabilities. Included in the study were paddlers with spinal cord injuries.

“Anything that drives interest in the sport I’m all for,” Schmid said. “A lot of athletes are interested in results in the sport they’re participating in.”

Schmid modeled the project after the decades-long groundbreaking study in METs for hula led by Native Hawaiian health researchers at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

The study required specialized equipment and funding that were not available at the time Schmid began the work.

Schmid graduated in 2021 and began a postdoctoral fellowship with the Office of Public Health Studies and the Hawai‘i Department of Health. Three years later, Schmid gained access to strong, new relationships and mentorship as part of her fellowship.


This work is important from a public health perspective, said project mentor Tetine Sentell, professor of public health and the Chin Sik and Hyun Sook Chung Endowed Chair in Public Health Studies.

“Health promotion that supports activities that are important to individuals and communities builds on existing strengths,” Sentell said. “This has deep value across multiple aspects that support health and wellbeing.”

A recent UH public health study found that 1 out of 5 (20%) Hawaiʻi residents have participated in outrigger paddling, and is particularly popular among Native Hawaiians (42%) and Pacific Islanders (31%).

Mike Atwood, 74, has been paddling for 54 years. He coaches for Kealakehe High School and has paddled for Kai ‘Opua for several years.

Atwood said to be a paddler you need a good respiratory system.

Atwood thinks the concept of the study is interesting as he thinks knowing the metrics while paddling could benefit competitive paddlers by honing in on their strengths and weaknesses.

Personally, Atwood said that physical activity has helped slow the aging process.

Beyond the health benefits, Atwood said it’s the cultural connection to the Hawaiian people, spanning hundreds of thousands of years, that makes it special.

Initial results from the data collection are anticipated this summer. Schmid plans to report back to the community, share results at scientific meetings and publish the research later this year. Her long-term mission is to have canoe club memberships covered by health insurance.

“All my career was built around physical activity and health—not knowing it would lead here,” said Schmid. “I fell in love with paddling in 2010. I am thankful for all my coaches and paddling communities for what they taught me. I am grateful to finally have the opportunity to do this METs project alongside the community and amazing paddlers. Mahalo nui to everyone who has made it possible.”

Visit the project website for up-to-date information and complete a public survey to submit ideas for the next steps, open through the summer of 2024.

The project is funded by Ola HAWAII and others. Community partners are AccesSurf Hawai‘i and Honolulu Pearl Canoe Club. Study partners include the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health, a community advisory hui of competitive and adaptive paddlers, a scientific advisory committee including researchers with JABSOM’s Department of Native Hawaiian Health, and Dan Heil, an expert in METs measurement.

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