You may have fond memories of swimming at the lake as a kid, or maybe the closest that you get to swimming these days is laying by the hotel pool on your last vacation. But swimming can be more than just a leisurely sport. One of the best cardio workouts, swimming is a fun and effective form of physical activity that has the potential to transform your body and relationship to fitness as well.
Great for people of all ages, swimming is a fantastic workout for all fitness levels. You can take it slow and enjoy a relaxing and recreational swim but also amp up the intensity of the workout to make it a vigorous form of exercise. Either way, swimming is an outstanding way to stay active and meet the recommended guideline of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
Here is everything you need to know about swimming, including some impressive benefits and potential disadvantages of the sport. Always consult with your physician or healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program.
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Health Benefits of Swimming
Staying active in general is one of the best things you can do for your overall health. Regular exercise can improve brain health, strengthen muscles and bones, reduce the risk of chronic disease and more. Not only is swimming enjoyable, but there are several well-established health benefits associated with the sport. Some of the many advantages of swimming regularly include that it:
1. Provides a whole body workout
Swimming may just be one of the most efficient exercise modalities out there since it utilizes all the muscles in the body, whether you’re doing a leisurely backstroke or hardcore butterfly. Swimming requires core engagement, utilizes the arms for most swim strokes and recruits the legs to help propel the body through the water. Your glutes also get an intense workout too, as do your back muscles.
2. Promotes a healthy heart
Regular exercise in general offers some well established heart health benefits, including helping to lower blood pressure, increasing “good” HDL cholesterol and reducing inflammation in the body. A study done in a group of hypertensive adults found that a 10-week water aerobic exercise program resulted in reductions in systolic blood pressure, with subsequent literature showing similar results. While there are benefits at a more leisurely pace, research suggests that a high-intensity swimming program promotes significant reductions in systolic blood pressure and resting heart rate.
3. Improves lung capacity
The lungs are another important organ that takes center stage during exercise. Your lungs bring oxygen to the body to provide energy and also remove carbon dioxide as a waste product, but the heart pumps that oxygen to the muscles that are doing the actual exercise. As you make your way through the workout, your body uses more oxygen and your heart rate increases as a response to this. Your lungs have to work harder to breathe during the workout, and they even improve at meeting this increased demand as you consistently exercise. This can result in increased lung capacity over time if you stay disciplined with your workout regimen. Research done in elite swimmers found that they had statistically superior lung capacity even when compared to football players.
4. Tones and strengthens muscles
We’ve established that swimming is a total body workout, but some strokes can target specific muscles more than others. Backstroke, for instance, relies on heavy engagement from the pecs, thighs and glutes. Butterfly stroke especially targets the triceps, biceps and shoulders. Breaststroke in particular recruits much lower body strength. But all strokes have different benefits and can result in incredible muscle tone and definition. Plus, water creates 12 to 14 times the resistance than air, which can further help improve strength.
5. Allows for low-impact activity
If you are recovering from an injury or have joint issues, the low-impact nature of swimming may be just what you need to comfortably stay active. Since the water gives you buoyancy, your body will be supported and have any heavy pressure removed off your joints as you make your way through the water. Many individuals with arthritis and other chronic conditions take to swimming since it is easy on the joints and muscles. Research done in sedentary individuals with osteoarthritis who were put on a three month swimming or cycling exercise regimen found significant reductions in joint pain and stiffness for both groups, as well as increased quality of life. Even walking and jogging can put pressure on the joints, so swimming may be the ideal alternative if you’re looking for an effective but lower impact form of activity.
6. Supports weight management
Swimming, in conjunction with a balanced diet, can support a healthy weight. At a moderate pace, swimming burns roughly 275 calories per hour. But increasing the intensity can burn upwards of 500 calories for the same amount of time. Staying consistent with the activity is key for seeing long-term results and weight maintenance. Slowly work your way up to the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity or a mix of the two each week as recommended by the CDC.
7. Reduces body fat
In addition to supporting a healthy weight and burning calories, swimming may also benefit overall body composition. In a small study of middle-aged women, one group swam a total of three hours a week for 12 weeks and saw decreases in body fat. Research done in sedentary women found that those who swam three times a week saw greater reductions in weight, waist and hip measurements compared to those who walked for three times a week.
8. Improves mental health
Outdoor exercise in general is associated with many positive health benefits including increased focus, attention and lower risk of depression. If you have access to a safe lake or body of water near you, an outdoor swim may be just what your body and brain need. Research done on outdoor swimming with over 700 participants found that swimming outdoors was associated with perceived reductions in symptoms of poor mental health. But swimming anywhere, regardless of indoor or outdoor locations, can be a very relaxing, soothing and meditative experience to help reduce stress as well.
9. Promotes quality sleep
Exercise, such as swimming, can lower your risk of chronic disease, reduce feelings of anxiety, promote a healthy weight and even help you feel more rested. Aerobic exercise in general promotes sleep and sleep quality, and moderate intensity specifically can lead to more slow wave or deep sleep where your brain and body are able to recharge and rejuvenate.
Disadvantages of Swimming
Unless you live near a safe body of water such as a lake or ocean, it may be difficult to find a pool near you, which can be a barrier to swimming for many. Pools typically require you to pay for access, whether they are in a community center or within a fitness club. There is also the added cost of purchasing a swimsuit, goggles and potentially a swim cap. Swimming isn’t the most intuitive form of movement either, so learning proper technique can take time and instruction. Building endurance in the pool can also take time and steady practice, especially since swimming as a form of working out can be physically intense at certain levels.
It’s important to note that even though swimming can build muscle strength and is low-impact, it doesn’t necessarily promote bone density. Be sure to compliment your swims with a balanced diet rich in calcium and vitamin D foods to support healthy bones and incorporate some strength training sessions throughout the week to increase bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Although there are a few downsides to swimming, if you have access to a pool or safe place to swim outdoors then the benefits can certainly outweigh the potential disadvantages.
Swimming Tips for Beginners
If you’re eager to start swimming for exercise, there are some important tips to keep in mind to get the most out of your workout and to do so safely.
- Start slow: Maybe you’re a skilled runner or avid barre workout participant, but swimming in the water feels strange or even very challenging at first. Ease into the workouts to help minimize muscle soreness and give things a fair chance. Our experts say to start with two or three swim workouts a week. Start slow with short swimming intervals or distances at a moderate intensity and gradually increase the time, distance or intensity as your body gets accustomed to the water and cardio exercise.
- Get the right gear: You don’t need much to get in the water, but a durable, well-made swimsuit that you feel confident wearing is definitely a must. A good pair of goggles that are adjustable is also important, and an optional swim cap can help you move through the water with ease, especially if you have long hair. If you’re swimming outdoors, you may want to invest in a clear set of goggles for days when it is overcast and cloudy and a second pair of dark set goggles for bright and sunny days. If you get bored or like to listen to music while you exercise, a pair of waterproof headphones may also come in handy. Additionally, make sure to pack a change of clothes, towels and anything else you’ll need to freshen up and shower afterwards.
- Stay safe: Regardless of your fitness level, even the most experienced swimmers should never swim alone. Accidents can happen, so always be sure to swim with a friend or in a pool with a lifeguard on duty. If you’re swimming outdoors, consider a safety buoy which attaches to your waist and can give you something to hold onto in an emergency and also make you more visible to others.
- Check water quality: If you are swimming outdoors, you’ll want to make sure that the area is safe to swim in. You can use this online search tool from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to search by state.
The Bottom Line: Swimming is an enjoyable form of activity with a slew of proven health benefits ranging from strengthening muscles to improving cardiorespiratory fitness. This low-impact workout is great for individuals of all ages and fitness levels, and can be modified from a more leisurely swim to a vigorous competitive exercise. Start slow with swimming workouts two to three times a week and gradually increase the intensity, time or distance as you get stronger. Whether you’re swimming indoors or exercising in a nearby lake, make sure to bring the right gear with you and always swim with others nearby and a lifeguard on duty.
Why Trust Good Housekeeping?
As a NASM-certified personal trainer, Stefani Sassos uses her expertise and exercise science knowledge to create informed fitness content for the Good Housekeeping Institute. Stefani has been working in the fitness industry for the past 10 years, specializing in indoor cycling and strength training. From vigorously testing exercise equipment to curating workout plans for Good Housekeeping readers, Stefani is passionate about leading an active lifestyle and inspiring others to do the same. She was a recreational swimmer until she signed up for her first triathlon in 2014 and started to swim for competition. She has completed three triathlons thus far and came to love swimming as her favorite portion of the race.
Nutrition Lab Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.