Swimming is a fantastic form of exercise that is easy on the joints but offers an effective workout that can improve physical and mental health. It burns calories and helps tone the body, even for those with limited mobility. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), swimming is particularly beneficial to those with arthritis, as it improves joint function, while those with fibromyalgia can lessen their anxiety and depression. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), recommends swimming as a form of weight management and to stave off ailments such as stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
Do not underestimate the calorie burning powers of swimming. Cosmopolitan magazine reports that, according to 2011 data from Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a 125-pound woman can burn anywhere from 540 to 784 calories per hour of swimming at a “moderate to vigorous pace,” depending on the actual stroke the swimmer is using, with butterfly stroke burning the most calories.
Beginners, you can still feel the burn at a slower pace. The U.K.-based Amateur Swimming Association’s SwimFit Calorie Cruncher Calculator estimates that 30 minutes of leisure swimming could burn approximately 220 calories.
Swimming also helps to get your abs into shape. Certified personal trainer Amy Roberts and swim coach Earl Walton explain in Women’s Health magazine that using your entire body to move through the water, which Walton says “provides a constant and consistent resistance,” gives your core a workout.
British Olympic swim coach Bill Furniss confirms this in a 2009 article for The Guardian: “Water is an environment that is moving all the time, so you need really strong core muscles to combat that… All of the strokes require a lot of abdominal power.” Roberts and Walton also tout swimming’s ability to strengthen your heart and say that becoming better at swimming can help promote confidence.
While swimming is an excellent workout, there are risks involved. The CDC cautions swimmers about Recreational Water Illness, defined as “Illness caused by germs and chemicals found in the water we swim in,” which can spread various infections. The parasite Cryptosporidium, or crypto for short, is of particular concern to the CDC, as it is on the rise in pools. Crypto causes nasty diarrhea, is not easy to kill, even with chlorine, and can be spread by swallowing contaminated pool water, among other ways. The CDC has outlined some guidelines for preventing the spread of crypto and other recreational water illnesses, including showering before entering the water.
It is imperative to learn how to breathe while swimming to avoid another risk: drowning. An analysis conducted by the CDC of several drowning incidences in New York State pinpoints “dangerous underwater breath-holding behaviors,” also referred to as DUBBs, including “repeated breath holding” and intentionally hyperventilating before swimming underwater. With these behaviors, the balance of oxygen intake and carbon dioxide expulsion is off. Carbon dioxide levels dip so low that the brain cannot properly sense when oxygen is needed, and the swimmer passes out. Men, take heed: The New York Times reveals that “nearly 80 percent of drowning victims are male.” This aligns with the CDC’s analysis, in which men made up 13 of the 16 people studied.
The NHS deems swimming as safe but tells beginners who have any concerns to consult a doctor before starting a swimming program, which is always a good idea for anyone beginning a new type of exercise, and take lessons to learn how to be safe and comfortable in the pool. Swimming lessons are widely available at community centers such as the YMCA. The CDC recommends swimming with a partner and where lifeguards are present.
There are ways for you to prevent injury and strengthen your body for swimming. The New York Times suggests warming up before swimming and strengthening the shoulders and upper back, and Furniss recommends following a strength training program. He has designed a routine for The Guardian, which includes popular exercises such as planks, pushups and squats.
Once you’ve talked to your doctor, had your lessons and know the basics, check out Fitness magazine’s swimming workouts for every level, including a beginner’s routine that will give swimmers a feel for lap swimming along with some drills and tips to help newcomers practice kicking and breathing. You can also work with your swim instructor to find a routine that works for you.