Remember the joy of childhood when you’d spend a hot summer day splashing around in a cold pool with friends? Maybe you were even on the swim team growing up, and the sound of a whistle takes you back to those starting splashes at the beginning of a race.
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Why not rediscover that love of the water as an adult? Exercise physiologist Christopher Travers, MS, explains why swimming — along with other aquatic exercises like water walking and water aerobics — is so good for your body and mind.
Is swimming good exercise?
Swimming isn’t just good exercise, it’s great exercise. That’s thanks to the water itself, which offers buoyancy and resistance that makes it easier on your whole body than other forms of exercise.
“As cardiovascular exercises go, swimming offers a little less wear and tear on the body than other options,” Travers says. “It’s a good choice for just about anyone.”
Health benefits of swimming
We love an equal-opportunity physical activity! Swimming is for people of various ages, weights and health conditions, and no matter your activity level, you’ll reap some of its benefits. Travers shares nine of them.
Easy on your joints
We’re not saying that swimming is easy (far from it!), but swimming takes much less of a toll on your body than, say, running or riding a bike. That’s because exercising in water lessens the impact of your body weight on your joints.
“The buoyancy of the water takes the weight off,” Travers says. “It also adds resistance, but it’s low impact.” This is especially helpful if you have a condition that causes stiffness or joint pain:
- Arthritis: Swimming has long been known to be one of the best exercise options for people with arthritis, helping to reduce symptoms and improve muscle strength.
- Fibromyalgia: One study of women with fibromyalgia found that swimming regularly for eight months led to a 20% improvement in their overall physical function and a whopping 53% improvement in their stiffness.
- Obesity: Excess weight can put pressure on your joints, making them stiff and sore. But the buoyancy of water makes swimming and other water-based exercises a great option for people who have obesity and overweight.
- Pregnancy: Being pregnant can bring all kinds of discomfort, including muscle and joint pains, but exercising in the water can help protect your joints and bring relief.
- Reduced mobility: If you have a disability that impacts your mobility, like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, water exercises can help reduce pain and spasticity.
Keeps your heart strong
Want to keep your ticker at peak function? Cardio activity is one of the keys to a healthy heart, and swimming’s cardiovascular benefits are clear. It’s been shown to:
- Improve cholesterol levels.
- Reduce blood pressure.
- Lower your risk of heart disease.
“A major study commissioned by Swim England found that swimmers have a 41% lower risk of death due to heart disease or stroke than non-swimmers,” Travers shares, “plus a 28% lower risk of early death overall.”
It’s even an option for people who are in cardiac rehabilitation. Studies show that swimming can be well-tolerated by people who are recovering from heart failure or coronary artery disease.
Of course, always check with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine, especially if you’re recovering from a major cardiac or have a known medical condition. And if you’ve had open-heart surgery or another procedure, be sure to stay out of the pool until your surgical incisions have healed.
Strengthens your lungs
If you want to breathe easier, swimming might help do the trick. It’s been found to improve lung strength and capacity.
“Swimming makes your body use oxygen more efficiently,” Travers says, “so if you’ve been diagnosed with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it can be a good exercise to try.”
That said, studies have also shown that long-term exposure to the disinfectants used to clean swimming pools can actually increase your asthma risk. So, proceed with caution and always check with your healthcare provider to make sure swimming is safe for you.
Like other forms of cardio, swimming can help you burn calories and lose weight.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a 154-pound person who swims slow freestyle laps for 30 minutes burns 255 calories. But that amount varies depending on your weight, speed and stroke.
Swim England reports that butterfly stroke burns the most calories, but because it can be so hard to learn and to maintain — especially for beginners — it’s not recommended as a weight loss go-to. Freestyle is the better option, and only after you’ve learned how to do it the right way.
The built-in resistance that water provides helps build muscles and makes you stronger. And because water is more resistant than air, swimming does this faster than land workouts like running and biking.
“When you swim, you’re getting better aerobic capacity, and you’re working your muscles because you’re working against the resistance of the water,” Travers states.
Keeps your mind sharp
More research is needed, but studies suggest that regular swimming can improve cognitive (mental) function, which is especially important as you age. And speaking of aging…
Supports healthy aging
Getting older? Hey, aren’t we all — but swimming is a great exercise choice to help you maintain your health as the years pile on.
A study of postmenopausal women with high blood pressure found that swimming reduced blood pressure and improved arterial stiffness.
Menopause also causes your bone density to decline, which can lead to weak and brittle bones. But swimming has been shown to have a positive effect on bone health in post-menopausal people. It may even be able to help stave off osteoporosis in people who’ve not yet entered menopause.
“When you’re postmenopausal, it’s important that you’re always looking for ways to increase bone density,” Travers advises.
Helps your mental health
It’s no secret that feeling better physically can help you to feel better mentally.
Remember that study we mentioned earlier, of women with fibromyalgia who swam for eight months? They didn’t just show improvements in physical health: They also reported a 41% improvement in anxiety and a 27% improvement from depression.
Plus, swimming is one of those activities that allows you to block out the world around you and just be. Whether you get lost in your own thoughts or use waterproof technology to listen to music while you do it, swimming can be a great way to destress and reap some of the benefits of meditation while also engaging in physical fitness.
A good choice if you’re new to working out
You don’t have to start swimming Olympic-level laps to reap the benefits of being in the water. Other water activities can be beneficial, too.
“If you’re a bit of a reluctant exerciser, or if you’re recovering from a heart attack or a heart arrhythmia, you can start small with something like water walking or water aerobics,” Travers suggests. “These activities can feel a little bit more accessible than lap-swimming.”
Start in water that’s about up to your waist. Walking slowly across the pool, swing your arms and keep your back straight.
“As you increase your strength and endurance, you can add water weights or hand webs, which act like weights working with the resistance in the water,” Travers suggests.
If you’re comfortable, you can move into deeper water. Some pools even offer a designated time for water walking in their “lazy river,” a shallow, flowing, artificial river.
As you increase your tolerance for water exercise, you may be interested in enrolling in a water aerobics class at your local gym or health facility. These classes combine the benefits of a water workout with the camaraderie and fun of a being in a group exercise setting.
How much should you swim to get the benefits?
The American College of Sports Medicine’s physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week. But what does that mean, especially if you’re not an athlete?
Travers puts it simply: Any exercise is better than no exercise, especially if you haven’t been working out at all. If you start swimming (or water walking or water aerobics), you’re going to experience some of its benefits, period — even if you’re not doing it for 150 minutes per week.
“One of the biggest misconceptions that people have is that they need to be pouring sweat when they’re during cardio,” he says. “But really, you just need to get up and move. Anything is better than being sedentary.”
If you sit at a desk all day, any additional movement is better than no movement at all. Start where you can and work up to that weekly recommended amount.
How to get into swimming
OK, we’ve convinced you: It’s time to start swimming. But, uhh… now what?
It may sound silly, especially if you know how to keep your head above water, but Travers recommends taking lessons.
“You’re never too old to get a swimming lesson,” he says — and yes, they do exist. Most pools that offer lap swimming also offer lessons or can help you find someone who does. Travers says that although adult swimming coaches often train triathletes, they can just as easily teach you the basics.
He shares some additional tips for first-time and returning swimmers:
- Start small: When you’re new to lap swimming, you may be surprised by how difficult it can be just to make it the length of the pool. Once you’ve mastered that, work your way up to swimming for five minutes, then 10. “Start out slow, and don’t think that you’re immediately going to be swimming for half an hour every day,” Travers cautions.
- Pools only: Not all bodies of water are created equal. When you’re first starting out, skip the lakes and bays and head straight to the manmade bodies of water. “You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, and you’ve got to learn to swim in a pool before you can move into open water,” Travers says.
- Look for a lifeguard: They’re not just for kids! The safest way to swim is in a guarded pool, where trained professionals are on hand in case of emergencies.
- Stop if it hurts: Get out of the water if you start to cramp up, and pay attention to any unpleasant sensations — especially ones that throb, ache or radiate. “You always want to listen to your body,” Travers notes. “If you begin to experience any pain, like in your shoulders or hips, that’s a sign to stop swimming and check with your healthcare provider.”
Speaking of healthcare providers: Before starting any new physical activity, ask whether if it’s safe for you. In this case, that’s especially true if you’ve never swam before or lead a very sedentary lifestyle.
But if you get the A-OK, wade on in! The water’s fine, and before you know it, you’ll be channeling your inner Nemo — and reaping a ton of health benefits, too.