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The Health Benefits of Swimming + Swim Workouts to Try

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Benefits of swimming - Dr. Axe

Swimming is a sport that many of us seem to do often when we’re young but then slack off on as we age. According to statistics, children swim more than adults, and in past generations, people tended to swim more in general.

If you haven’t hit a swimming pool in some time or find yourself swimming only during warmer months, you’re missing out. That’s because swim workouts are some of the best activities you can do for your body year-round.

Swimmers benefit from improved endurance, strength and even stress relief.

Read on to discover why it might be time to grab your goggles and swim cap.

Top 9 Benefits of Swimming

There’s no such thing as a miracle workout, but if there was, swimming would be pretty high on the list. Research suggests there are both physical and mental benefits of swimming workouts, and you don’t need to be the next Michael Phelps to reap these effects.

What does swimming do to your body exactly? Here are the top benefits of swimming for your body and mind:

1. Can Help Your Brain Work Better

You’ll get more than just a swimmer’s body when you take up swim workouts. Your brain will get a boost, too.

Swimming has been found to increase blood flow to the brain, which leads to more oxygen. That means you may experience more alertness, better memory and overall improved cognitive function.

One interesting study found that just being in a pool of warm water that’s at least chest-level can have a positive effect on blood flow to the brain. Participants in the study increased blood flow to their cerebral arteries by about 14 percent.

2. Helps Children Achieve Skills

It turns out that getting little ones in the water early is a good idea as well. A study of 7,000 children under 5 years old found that children who participated in swimming at a young age achieved skills and reached physical milestones earlier than their non-swimming peers, regardless of socioeconomic background.

Their literacy and numeric skills were better, too. Better get the floaties!

3. Gives You a Mood Boost

If you only swim during the summer months, it’s time to break out your swimsuit during the winter. That’s because, despite the lower temperatures, one study found that swimmers who hit the pool regularly between October and January reported improved general well-being, including less fatigue, tension and memory loss.

No matter the time of year, it’s thought that swimming offers mental health benefits, including lowering stress levels, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improving sleep quality.

Not only that, but the swimmers who suffered from ailments like rheumatism, fibromyalgia or asthma found that wintertime swimming eased their aches and pains.

4. Can Help Lower Blood Pressure

If you suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure), swim workouts are an excellent way to lower resting blood pressure.

One study found that, over a 10-week period, men and women who had previously been sedentary and had hypertension decreased their resting heart rate significantly. This is particularly useful for people who struggle with other exercises because of their weight, asthma or injuries.

Another study found that after a year of swimming regularly, patients with hypertension lowered their blood pressure while also improving insulin sensitivity, which is key to avoiding type 2 diabetes.

5. May Help You Live Longer

If you’ve been comparing life extenders, swimming is another one to add to your list.

One study of more than 40,000 men between 20–90 years old found that those participants who swam or did other pool exercises, like water jogging or aqua aerobics, lowered their risk of dying from any cause by nearly 50 percent compared to men who were sedentary, walked regularly or who were runners.

6. Helps Reduce Risk of Heart Disease

A 2018 meta-analysis and review concluded that swimming “may offer robust beneficial effects on cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition across multiple populations.” The review found that swimmers benefited from improvements in ventilation, exercise performance, body mass, body fat percentage and lean mass.

Positive effects of swimming are thought to be comparable to other types of exercise in terms of physiological outcomes, both in healthy adults and those with noncommunicable disease.

In another study of patients with osteoarthritis, researchers found that swimming was just as effective — and sometimes even more so — as cycling at improving cardiovascular function and reducing inflammation.

7. May Decrease Lower Back Pain

Skip the painkillers, and hit the pool instead. One study found that patients with lower back pain who did aquatic exercises at least twice a week showed significant improvements in pain.

After six months, 90 percent of the study’s participants felt they improved after their time in the program, no matter what their swimming ability was at the start of the study.

8. Serves as Ideal Alternative to High-Impact Exercise

Swimming uses muscles you don’t normally engage and is easy on the joints, making it a great alternative to high-impact activities. It also allows you to zone out without the fear of tripping on something like when you’re running.

Even though it’s “low impact,” swimming isn’t necessarily easy. At a moderate pace, it burns about 270 calories in just a half hour. Increase the intensity, and you’re looking at about 700 calories an hour!

Unlike other workouts, like running or cycling, swimming isn’t only a cardio activity. Because water is denser than air — by nearly 800 times — every swimming workout becomes a strength training session, where you’re building muscle and tone along with burning calories with each stroke.

One review found that swimming exercises led to improvements in both strength and power capacities and performance. Plus, you’ll likely use muscles that you normally don’t, meaning you’ll start to see definition in new places.

9. Can Help with Weight Loss

Does swimming work for weight loss, and can swimming burn belly fat?

The answer is: probably. Like any other exercise, how effective swimming is for weight loss depends on a variety of factors: how long you’re swimming, what you’re eating throughout the day and what you’re doing once you’re in the pool.

If you spend most of your time adjusting your bathing suit instead of moving or swim dozens of laps but subsist on a fast food diet, chances are you’re not going to lose weight, and studies focused on swimming for weight loss ave been somewhat contradictory.

One study examined the effects of swimming and walking on body weight, fat distribution, lipids, glucose and insulin in older women. The study found that, after six months, swimmer reduced their waist and hip sizes more than walkers and increased how far they could swim in 12 minutes. Walkers didn’t increase how far they could walk.

After a year, swimmer reduced their body weight and cholesterol levels more than the walkers.

Other studies have found that swimming can increase people’s food consumption, and in some studies, swimmers haven’t lost any weight at all. If you focus less on the numbers on the scale and instead on your body, however, you might find that swimming is the ideal workout for you, even if you aren’t dropping pounds.

Related: The Surprising Benefits of Swimming in Cold Water (+ How to Stay Safe)

Swim workouts graphic

Types of Swimming and How to Swim

Types:

There are four major swimming “strokes” that experts recommend learning in order to get the most benefits from your workouts. These strokes generally provide a full-body workout (they’re also the same strokes used by competitive swimmers) and include:

  • Front crawl — Regarded as the fastest of the four strokes, this is done facing forward with alternating arm movements. You keep your body flat but rotate your hips and shoulder. One shoulder comes out of the water as your arm exits while the other begins the propulsive phase under the water.
  • Breaststroke — Done while facing forward, you stretch your arms out and to the side. Your head bobs in and out of the water so you can breathe while also increasing your speed.
  • Butterfly — Facing forward, you move your chest and use both arms symmetrically while kicking with “butterfly legs.” Your body remains close to the surface of the water while your hands sweep down and out to form a Y shape in front of you.
  • Backstroke — While floating on your back, you use alternating arm movements to propel you forward. Your body rolls from side to side slightly while your legs perform “flutter kicks.”

How Often and How Long?

Is swimming every day OK? In most cases, yes.

Swimming is gentle on your joints, so you’re unlikely to get injured in a pool. Unlike other exercises, unless you’re doing some seriously intense swimming, you don’t really need recovery time after pool exercises.

If you are recovering from an injury, swim workouts are an excellent way to keep moving while you recover.

How long do you need to swim to get a good workout? Aim for about 20 to 40 minutes (or longer if you enjoy endurance swimming).

At first, start with shorter swims lasting about 15 to 20 minutes, and plan to swim every other day or several times per week. As you get better at it, increase the time to about 30 minutes, ideally about four or five times per week.

Here’s the cool thing: According to Swimming.org, “30 minutes in a pool is worth about 45 minutes of the same activity on land!”

Tips for How to Swim:

Completely new to swimming or ready to become a more avid endurance swimmer? Here’s how to do it:

For starters, swim workouts can be way more intense than you may expect, because working out in the water is completely different than on land. You’re constantly in motion to keep yourself from sinking, your lungs are adjusting to breathing differently and muscles you didn’t know you had are in motion. In short, it’s tough!

When you’re first starting out, the best way to keep from feeling too winded too soon is by divvying up your workout into a few short intervals. You want to vary the strokes, the intensity and rest periods as well.

You can also add some pool toys to change things up, like using a kickboard to tone thighs or play water sports with friends.

For each workout below, the goal is given along with expected strokes and distances. Why do more strokes than just the crawl? Variety gives your muscles a break.

Remember, an Olympic-sized swimming pool is 50 meters long, so one “lap” is 100 meters.

Also, please consult your doctor before beginning any type of training program.

1. Beginner Swim Workout

The principal goal is to learn the four major strokes — the front crawl (or freestyle), the backstroke, the breaststroke and the butterfly — and swim continuously without taking breaks, aided by breathing properly.

Beginner workout (rest between each set):

  • 2 x 50 meter crawl (warmups)
  • 2 x 50 meter backstroke (focus on swimming straight)
  • 2 x 50 meter breaststroke (focus on technique)
  • 2 x 50 meter butterfly (if you can’t do butterfly, then do crawl)
  • 2 x 100 meter IM (25 meters of each: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, crawl)
  • 2 x 50 meter crawl (cool-down)

2. Intermediate Swim Workout

Until you’ve mastered the butterfly, you shouldn’t advance to this workout. Here the goal is to improve your swim technique for all four strokes and develop excellent breathing.

Intermediate workout (rest after each 100 meters or lap if need):

  • 300 meters warmup (alternate the four strokes)
  • 4 x 100 meters IM (“sprint” 1st and 3rd lap, swim easy on 2nd and last IM)
  • 4 x 50 meters breaststroke
  • 4 x 50 meters butterfly
  • 4 x 50 meters backstroke
  • 200 meters cool-down (alternate the four strokes)

3. Advanced Swim Workout

Advanced swim workouts include more challenging swimming drills and breathing techniques. These drills will help you develop into a very strong swimmer with outstanding stamina.

Advanced workout (rest after each 100 meters or lap if need):

  • 300 meters crawl warmup
  • 4 x 200 meters with alternate breathing (50 meters every 6th stroke; 50 meters every 5th; 50 meters every fourth; 50 meters every 3rd)
  • 3 x 100 meters (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke)
  • 8 x 50 meters sprints (swim each without taking a breath; rest briefly after each)
  • 8 x 25 meters sprints (swim each without taking a breath; rest briefly after each)
  • 4 x 100 meters IM (rest 30–60 seconds after each 100)
  • 300 meters cool-down (alternate the four strokes)

Risks and Side Effects

Happily, swimming is one of the sports where you’re least likely to injure yourself.

That being said, why might swimming not be good for you? It’s generally very safe (assuming you know how to float), but it requires an adjustment from the way you operate on land.

If you’re not an experienced swimmer or have health issues, particularly cardiovascular disease, you should contact your doctor to ensure that striking up a swimming routine is safe.

If you’re unsure about how to swim, now is the time to get a lesson! Most community pools offer adult swimming lessons throughout the year.

Easy on your wallet, swimming doesn’t require any gear except for a swimsuit. If you’re hitting the pool regularly, you should get a pair of swimming goggles so you don’t have to worry about chlorine flying in your eyes.

Ladies, you might want to invest in a swim cap — although it’s not particularly stylish looking, it’ll protect your hair from the chemicals from the water so it doesn’t start feeling rough or get discolored.

Related: Chlorine Rash Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Conclusion

  • The benefits of swimming workouts are vast and range from improving your brain function and mood to reducing your risk of heart disease and helping you live longer.
  • While the jury is still deciding on whether swimming is the best workout for weight loss, it’s excellent for keeping in shape and building muscle tone.
  • Not only is swimming a cardio workout, but it’s strength training as well. Hello, muscles!
  • Ease into pool workouts to ensure you feel comfortable and can maintain them.

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