While swimming isn’t one of the more convenient workout methods–primarily because it requires a body of water–it happens to be one of the most effective. “Swimming is the complete exercise–full body, muscular endurance, and cardio,” says Dan Daly, CSCS, a New York City-based swimming coach and personal trainer.
In addition to the physical benefits demonstrated by the strength of Olympic swimmers, the exercise can also help improve your health in a variety of other ways, and is a great workout for anyone regardless of age. “It's a lifelong activity particularly beneficial to aging bodies due to the unloaded benefits of buoyancy, the muscular resistance of the water, and cardio fitness,” explains Daly.
Swimming Is a Full-Body Workout
Daly points out that unlike most cardio workouts, swimming engages nearly every muscle in your body. “The majority of cardio modalities are lower body dominant, leaving many cardio enthusiasts underdeveloped in their upper bodies, particularly the swim-centric shoulder joint—the least stable and most underutilized joint in the body,” he explains.
Swimming, on the other hand, distributes work over every major joint and muscle in the body, forcing your legs, arms, core, and back to work in unison. “If you primarily run or do land-based exercises, swimming will be a new challenge to your body and recruit different muscle groups, especially in your shoulders and back,” adds Samantha Smith, MD, sports medicine physician in the Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation at Yale Medicine.
It Serves as Low-Impact Resistance Training
If you are looking for a low-impact form of resistance training, dive right into the water as it is significantly denser than air. “Water has more viscosity than air, so it is harder to move through it and more force is required. This means that if you do the same movement on land or on water, you work harder in the water because you are working against resistance,” explains Smith. Instead of adding more weight to amp up your workout, try a pair of flippers instead, which she says will increase resistance in the water and give you more strengthening effects.
It Torches Calories
Depending on a variety of factors—including stroke, intensity, and body weight—swimming can blast up to 1000 calories per hour. According to Harvard Medical School, a person can burn anywhere from 180-252 calories per 30 minutes of recreational swimming, while vigorously swimming laps can blast 300-420 calories.
It's Easy on the Joints
The property of buoyancy is one of the unique things about exercising in water that makes it a great option for anyone, but especially for people with joint pain or recovering from an injury, or those who are overweight or obese and may have fatigue or pain when exercising on land.
“When you are learning how to swim, one of the first skills that is taught is floating. We all float a bit differently depending on our body composition and density, and also the type of water—it is easier to float in saltwater than freshwater,” Smith explains. “The buoyancy of the water helps to reduce the load on our joints, meaning we can challenge our bodies and improve fitness without worsening pain. Walking in water up to our belly-button decreases our effective body weight by about half!”
It Can Help Save Your Life
Learning to float, swim, and tread water comfortably “is a potentially life-saving skill,” Smith points out. If you can swim, you can not only protect yourself from drowning, but help others who are. “Unfortunately, there are racial and socio-economic disparities in swimming ability.”
According to information from the USA Swimming Foundation, 79% of children in households with incomes less than $50,000 have little to no swimming ability. “It’s never too late to learn how to swim,” she points out. The Red Cross and the YMCA are national organizations with learn-to-swim resources, and many local community centers have great swimming programs.
It Will Help Improve Cardiovascular Health
Feeling breathless after a swim? That is because swimming is an amazing form of cardio, as your heart and lungs have to keep pumping oxygenated blood throughout your body in order to keep you moving through the pool.
“Breathing does not come as easy swimming,” Daly points out. “It requires a rhythm of under water exhales, and surface inhales, coordinated with your stroke and speed.” This is why swimmers often demonstrate some of the best breath control in sport. “For decades, they have known some of the emerging secrets we are learning about the mechanics of breathing, frequency, and CO2 tolerance,” he points out.
It Will Help You De-stress
While any form of exercise is a great mental health booster, being at one with the water has stress-relieving benefits. “In an overly connected, extremely tech-y world, swimming can be a space to unplug, immersing yourself in solitude with your head down, focused on your breath and fitness,” Daly points out.
It Can Help Your Body Regenerate and Recover
Swimming can be a great in-between workout, even on rest days. “The best athletes are quickly identifying the best bio-hacks to improve recovery time between workouts and competition. For many of the reasons above, swimming allows for significant volumes of training with better recovery times, is an excellent cross-training modality for other sports, and [is] a lifelong activity that aging athletes go to to reset some of the wear and tear of other sports,” explains Daly.
It Can Help With Pain
Swimming may be a natural pain reliever. One study found that swimming not only reduced joint pain and stiffness in people suffering from arthritis, but also improved their overall function.
While hitting the gym may seem like a chore, many people find joy in hopping in the pool. “Adding a new element to your workout is a way to keep things fresh and prevent boredom or plateaus in your fitness,” Smith points out. “Keep challenging your mind and body to stay engaged and motivated!”
Harvard Health Publishing. Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights. Updated March 8, 2021.
USA Swimming Foundation. Youth Learn to Swim.
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Smith PJ, Merwin RM. The Role of Exercise in Management of Mental Health Disorders: An Integrative Review. Annu Rev Med. 2021;72:45-62. doi:10.1146/annurev-med-060619-022943
Alkatan M, Baker JR, Machin DR, et al. Improved Function and Reduced Pain After Swimming and Cycling Training in Patients With Osteoarthritis. J Rheumatol. 2016;43(3):666-672. doi:10.3899/jrheum.151110