The health benefits of swimming can include cardiovascular fitness, stress relief, and a reduced risk of high blood pressure and diabetes.
Swimming is especially great for stress relief because the strokes you take involve rhythmic breathing that can trigger the part of your nervous system that’s responsible for rest and relaxation.
Swimming is also a great way to burn calories. Vigorous strokes like the butterfly can burn 400 calories every 30 minutes.
Along with being fun, swimming is an aerobic exercise that can reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes. Plus, swimming offers unique workout payoffs of its own. Here are six ways swimming can improve your health.
1. Swimming is a full-body workout
You use big segments of both your upper and lower body when you swim, says Brian Wright, associate professor of kinesiology at DePauw University. Different strokes work for different muscle groups, and mixing them up will give you a well-rounded workout. Here are some examples:
Freestyle or crawl stroke, emphasizes shoulder and chest muscles and includes a kick that engages your thighs and rear as well.
Backstroke works posterior shoulder muscles and the upper back, which promotes good posture.
Breaststroke exercises the biceps, triceps, pecs, lats, deltoids, and inner thighs.
2. Swimming torches calories
Moving all of those muscles requires a lot of energy, and that burns a lot of calories in return. The more vigorous the workout, the more calories you burn.
Leisurely swimming, for example, burns around 220 calories every 30 minutes in a 155-pound person. Whereas, more vigorous strokes like butterfly have been clocked at burning more than 400 calories every 30 minutes.
Though, the number of calories burned also depends on how skilled you are as a swimmer.
“A good swimmer is going to move through the water effortlessly, whereas somebody who doesn’t swim well is going to expend many more calories,” says Lori Sherlock, associate professor of exercise physiology at West Virginia University, who coordinates the school’s aquatic therapy program.
3. Swimming improves cardiovascular health
The American Heart Association suggests two and a half hours per week of moderate-intensity physical activity for optimal health. Swimming can provide as good of a workout as land-based activities like biking, walking, or a dance class.
Another factor is hydrostatic pressure, which is the force a fluid exerts on an object. This pressure of water on the body pushes blood to the heart and improves circulation. The deeper you are submerged, the greater the pressure.
To assess how much of a workout you’re getting, Sherlock suggests using the perceived exertion scale, which measures body signals like muscle fatigue. Normally heart rate monitors are a good tool to measure workout intensity but they are generally less accurate in water.
“My best advice is to work at all intensity levels, if that’s medically appropriate. That means you can have a bit of a conversation some times, and other times are breathing so hard through your mouth that you can barely talk,” Sherlock says.
4. Swimming is a low-impact activity
The body is buoyant in water, which reduces body weight by about 90% when a person is submerged to chest level.
“Because the activity is less weight-bearing, certain groups of people can take advantage of it if they want to be active. One can also continue to do it late into one’s age, as opposed to weight-bearing activities like running,” Wright says.
People who feel pain, like joint pain, when they work out on land can enjoy more freedom of movement in the water. Moreover, hydrostatic pressure can help reduce pain sensitivity from joints. In particular, studies suggest that people with arthritis, neck and back problems, fibromyalgia, and obesity may benefit most from water-based exercise.
5. Swimming eases stress
Regular physical activity, including swimming, has been linked to lower psychological stress levels and improved mood.
When done with the correct technique, swimming strokes involve rhythmic breathing that can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system — the part of our nervous system that’s responsible for rest and relaxation.
Many people find the water pressure relaxing “just like a hug,” Sherlock says, adding that warm water is particularly soothing.
6. Swimming is a good option for people with asthma
Swimming may be a safer activity for people with asthma. Unless it’s a competitive race, swimming promotes steady, moderate exertion compared with exercise that involves heavy, repetitive breathing, like long-distance running. Indoor swimming pools are warm, humid environments with fewer allergens.
People are less likely to have exercise-induced asthma attacks while swimming versus outdoor activities like biking or hiking, Wright says. Some studies suggest that swimming can improve lung function, especially in children.
Tips to swim safely
Swimming has a low injury rate compared with other forms of exercise. However, it’s important that a swimming facility be clean, well ventilated, and have enough chlorine to disinfect the water. Too much chlorine, though, may irritate the skin, eyes, or respiratory tract.
“If you walk in and you get smacked in the face with a sensation of chlorine, like burning eyes and nostrils, turn around and walk out. That is a telling sign that the water chemistry is not quite right,” Sherlock says.
Wear shoes on the deck of the pool so as not to slip or pick up fungi, which can grow on pool decks that aren’t properly cleaned. If you aren’t sure of your swimming skills, wear a life vest or belt.
Most importantly, never swim alone. A sudden illness, injury, or cramp can be a drowning hazard, as can overestimating your swimming abilities.
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