Every type of exercise has its selling points. But swimming is unlike any other aerobic workout in a few important ways.
First, the fact that you’re submerged in water means your bones and muscles are somewhat unshackled from the constraints of gravity, says Hirofumi Tanaka, a professor of kinesiology and director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Lab at the University of Texas.
This makes swimming the ideal exercise for people with osteoarthritis, for whom weight-bearing exercise can be excruciatingly painful. According to Tanaka’s research of people with the condition, swimming decreases arterial stiffness, a risk factor for heart trouble. More of his research has linked swim training with lower blood pressure among people with hypertension. The coolness and buoyancy of water are also appealing to people who are overweight or obese, for whom load-bearing aerobic exercises like running may be too hot or uncomfortable, Tanaka says.
But don’t be fooled; your body is working hard when you’re in the pool. Water is denser than air, so moving through H2O puts more external pressure on your limbs than out-of-water training, studies have shown. Even better, that pressure is uniformly distributed. It doesn’t collect in your knees, hips or the other places that bear most of the burden when you exercise with gravity sitting on your shoulders.
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How you breathe during a swimming workout is another big differentiator, says David Tanner, a research associate at Indiana University and co-editor of an educational handbook on the science of swimming. During a run or bike ride, your breath tends to be shallow and your exhales forceful. “It’s the other way around with swimming,” says Tanner. “You breathe in quickly and deeply, and then let the air trickle out.” Because your head is under water when you swim, these breathing adjustments are vital, and they may improve the strength of your respiratory muscles, Tanner says. “This kind of breathing keeps the lung alveoli”—the millions of little balloon-like structures that inflate and deflate as your breathe—“from collapsing and sticking together.”
Plus, who wouldn’t want a swimmer’s body? Swimming fires up more of your body’s major muscle groups than other forms of cardio exercise. “If you think about running or biking, you’re mostly using your lower body,” Tanner says. Swimming not only engages your legs, but also recruits your upper body and core—especially your lats, the muscles of your middle back, and triceps, the backs of your upper arms. “You look at pictures of swimmers, and you see how the upper body development is really tremendous,” he says.
Finally, your back benefits. Working out in a horizontal pose—as opposed to the upright position your body assumes during other forms of aerobic exercise—may be an ideal way to counteract all the time you spend hunched over a desk or steering wheel. “There’s no hard impact on your back like there is with running, and instead of being bent forward like you would be on a bike, your back tends to be arched slightly in the opposite direction,” Tanner says. That may help improve your posture and prevent the back injuries and pain that stem from long stretches of sedentary time.
The exercise is also linked to many of the same life-extending, heart-saving, mood-lifting benefits associated with other forms of aerobic exercise. And it’s fun, which matters. “People tend to enjoy swimming more than running or bike-riding,” Tanaka says. While about half of people who try a new exercise program give up within a few months, people who take up swimming are more likely to stick with it, he says.
If you’re sold on swimming, Tanner recommends starting slowly. “Don’t try to do too much too early, and focus on proper technique,” he says. Consider enlisting the help of an instructor if you didn’t have any formal coaching as a kid. “If you’re not used to swimming, it can be hard to relax in the water,” he says. Being nervous and tight may limit the sport’s benefits.
Start off with 30-minute sessions three times a week, and don’t forget to take frequent breaks. “You want to ease into it and build up,” he says, “just like a running program.”
Photo Courtesy: Robin Sparf
By Dr. G. John Mullen, Swimming World Contributor
With Olympic Trials finished and the Olympics around the corner, everyone wants to be an Olympic swimmer. Luckily, you don’t have to be an Olympic swimmer to benefit from the sport. People of all ages, from all backgrounds, and with various levels of experience can benefit from swimming. Swimming is one of the few sports you can do from a young age and all the way up into your 90s.
Why not jump in? It’s not too late to gain from the hidden benefits of swimming. Swimming is perfect for your mental health and physical health. Water is a low-impact sport that provides more resistance than dryland exercises and it has a therapeutic cooling effect on the body that contribute to its many benefits. It truly is the perfect sport. Here are 10 of the sport’s less obvious benefits:
1. Swimming Improves Social Well Being
Swimming is very much a social sport. Swimmers of all ages can take classes together, train together, or work with a coach in the pool. Even if you have a pool at home, it is where you gather with your friends and family. A study revealed exercising and socializing together leads to improved mental health. Participants in the study had lower levels of anxiety and depression than their peers did.
2. Swimming Teaches Goal Orientation
Swimmers become goal-oriented in their personal and professional lives. Swimming gives kids and adults something to strive for. Whether it is kicking a kickboard across the pool, improving a lap time, or recovering from an injury with water rehabilitation, setting goals and achieving them is the key. The skills swimmers learn in the pool to realize and achieve such goals are skills that can and will be used out of the pool as well.
3. Kids Who Swim Become Active Adults
Swimming is an important activity to help combat the childhood obesity rates, and it is fun too. Swimming has all the three elements of physical activity recommended to keep kids healthy: endurance, strength, and flexibility. Swimming provides kids with the tools, skills, and dedication to maintain healthier lives as adults.
4. Swimming Makes You Smarter
Regular exercise, such as swimming, improves memory function and thinking skills. This is good not only for the classroom and work, but it is beneficial for us as we age too. Regular exercise reduces inflammation and insulin resistance in the brain, which fosters new brain cell growth. Swimming also improves mood, anxiety, and stress, which increases the brain’s ability to think more efficiently.
5. Swimming Teaches Team-Building Skills
Swimmers on teams or in swim classes have better team-building skills. Swimmers learn to work together, to encourage each other, to communicate, and to become leaders. All of these skills translate into effective leaders in adulthood. Team-building skills encourage collaboration, goal orientation, inspiration, strategy development, and coordination, which all result in successful careers and professional relationships.
6. Swimming Burns More Calories than Jogging
When you compare swimming to running, you can burn more calories swimming laps around the pool than you can running laps for an hour. One hour of vigorous lap swimming can burn as much as 715 calories. The same amount of time running at 5 mph burns only 606 calories.
7. Swimming Slows Down Aging
There is no secret pill to living longer, but the pool is like the fountain of youth. Regular swimming can delay the effects of aging by reducing blood pressure, increasing muscle mass, improving oxygen and blood flow to the brain, and increasing cardiovascular health. Swimming can also improve physical strength and balance in seniors. Seniors who suffer from joint pains can hit the pool to increase flexibility and to reduce joint inflammation. Lastly, this low-impact sport is easier on the body.
8. Swimming is Good for Asthma
Swimming is great for people who suffer from chronic lung conditions such as asthma. Asthma sufferers, especially those with sports-induced asthma, can experience trouble because the loss of heat and moisture in the bronchial tubes causes the tubes to contract. This happens when the air is dry and/or cold outside. Swimming is the best exercise for asthma patients because the moisture from the water replaces the moisture expelled during vigorous breathing.
9. Swimmers are More Confident
Swimming is a confidence-building sport. Early evidence from an ongoing study out of Griffith University in Australia revealed that young swimmers are more confident than their non-swimming peers. This is also true for competitive and non-competitive adult swimmers. Swimming teaches confidence in the pool and in the open water, which translates to confidence on land as well.
10. Minimal Gear
Swimming is one of the best sports, as it does require minimal gear! You can workout with only a swimsuit and goggles!
It’s never too early or too late to start swimming. Jump in and have fun. Your life, health, and well being depend on it.