Swimming is a sport that we seem to do often when we’re young and then slack off on as we age. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in fact, 36 percent of children aged 7–17 years old swim at least six times a year, compared to only 15 percent of adults. (1)
But if you haven’t hit the pool in some time or find yourself swimming only during warmer months, you’re missing out. That’s because swim workouts are one of the best activities you can do for your body year-round. Read on to discover why it might be time to grab your goggles and swim cap.
8 Benefits of Swimming
There’s no such thing as a miracle workout but, if there was, swimming would be pretty high on the list. With both physical and mental benefits, swimming workouts can really improve your overall health in a short amount of time. And, luckily, you don’t need to be the next Michael Phelps to reap the effects either.
1. Your brain will 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’ll experience more alertness, better memory and cognitive function. (1)
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 increased blood flow to their cerebral arteries by 14 percent. (2)
2. Swimming helps kids achieve. It turn 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 socio-economic background. (3) Their literacy and numeric skills were better, too. Better get the floaties!
3. You’ll get 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 less fatigue, tension and memory loss. (4)
4. You’ll lower blood pressure. If you suffer from hypertension, 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 but 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. (5)
Another study found that after a year of swimming regularly, patients with hypertension lowered their blood pressure while also improving their insulin sensitivity, which is key to avoiding type 2 diabetes. (6)
5. You’ll 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 than those men who were sedentary, walked regularly or were runners. (7)
6. You can reduce your risk of heart disease. In a study of patients with osteoarthritis, researchers found that swimming just as effective — and sometimes more so — as cycling in increasing cardiovascular function and reducing inflammation. (8)
7. You’ll reduce 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 improvement in pain. And after 6 months, 90 percent of the study’s participants felt they’d improved after their time in the program, no matter what their swimming ability was at the start of the study. (9)
8. It serves as an ideal alternative to high-impact exercise. Swimming uses muscles you don’t normally engage, is easy on the joints, making it a great alternative to high-impact activities and allows you to zone out without the fear of tripping on something like running.
In short, swimming is pretty darn awesome!
Does Swimming Work for Weight Loss?
Those other benefits are great, you say, but “I want to lose weight.” Does swimming work for weight loss? 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 for, 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.
But let’s assume that you’re just a regular Jane or Joe who wants to incorporate swimming into your normal workout routine. Will swimming help you lose weight? This is where things can get a bit complicated. Studies about this are 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, swimmers had reduced their waist and hip sizes more than walkers and had increased how far they could swim in 12 minutes; walkers hadn’t increased how far they could walk. And after a year, swimmers had reduced their body weight and cholesterol levels more than the walkers had. (10)
But other studies have found that swimming can increase people’s food consumption. And sometimes, swimmers haven’t lost any weight at all. But if you focus less on the numbers on the scale and instead on your body, you might find that swimming is the ideal workout for you, even if you aren’t dropping pounds.
For starters, swimming at a moderate pace also burns about 270 calories in just half hour. (11) Increase the intensity and you’re looking at about 700 calories an hour.
And 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. Plus, you’re likely using muscles that you normally wouldn’t, meaning you’ll start to see definition in new places.
Another bonus is that 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. And if you are recovering from an injury, swim workouts are an excellent way to keep moving while you recover
3 Swim Workouts for Different Levels
So you’re ready to hit the pool? It’s important to keep a few things in mind. For starters, swim workouts can be way more intense than you’d originally 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’ll 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 will be given along with expected strokes and distances. Why do more strokes than just the crawl? Variety plus gives your muscles a break. Remember, an Olympic-sized swimming pool is 50 meters long, so one “lap” would be 100 meters.
Remember, 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 crawl or freestyle, the backstroke, the breaststroke and the butterfly — and swim continuously without taking breaks, aided by breathing properly.
Workout distance: 700 meters
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.
Workout distance: 1500 meters
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 includes more challenging swimming drills and breathing technique. These drills will develop into a very strong swimmer with outstanding stamina.
- 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)
Happily, swimming is one of the sports where you’re least likely to injure yourself. However, it does require an adjustment from the way you operate on land so, 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. And if you’re unsure about how to swim, full stop, well, 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 that you don’t have to worry about chlorine flying in your eyes. And 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 (if you dye your hair, this is a must!).
Finally, giving yourself time to adjust in the pool is crucial to sticking to your swim workouts. Because it’s so different from working out on land, it might take you a bit to get the hang of how your body feels while moving in water, and that’s totally okay! Swim workouts are some of the most forgiving.
- While swimming is popular with children and tapers off as we age, it’s one of the best workouts we can give our body.
- The benefits of swimming workouts are vast and range from improving your brain function and mood to reducing your risk of heart disease and living 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 maintain them.