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Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more
Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, and freestyle — no matter how you take to the water, swimming is the perfect workout. It engages your body without murdering your joints. It’s also a killer form of cardio.
Get out your swimsuits, folks. Here are the top 13 benefits of swimming.
Any form of exercise has benefits, but swimming is special. From stress reduction to a potentially longer life, swimming can help you long after you’ve left the pool. Let’s dive right in.
1. It’s a full-body workout
When you jump into the pool, everything gets a workout. It may seem like your legs and arms do most of the work, but that’s not the case. Swimming strengthens your core, raises your heart rate, and engages nearly all the muscles in your back.
It’s hard to hit all these muscle groups without doing a 2-hour gym session. When you swim, you get that full-body burn in as little as 20 minutes.
2. It’s easy on your joints
With most forms of exercise, you have two options: high intensity but hard on your joints or low intensity and easy on your joints. With swimming, you get the best of both worlds. Game-changer.
Swimming is a great workout for those new to the #FitLife. According to the American Council on Exercise, buoyancy reduces your body weight by 90 percent. That means your joints only have to deal with 10 percent of their usual weight load, which can drastically reduce your chance of injury.
This makes swimming a terrific option for people of all ages and skill levels.
3. It may improve arthritis symptoms
If you live with arthritis, many forms of exercise can be tough — but swimming isn’t one of them. Some research suggests swimming can even decrease pain and stiffness caused by arthritis.
You can choose a high intensity swimming workout to really get your heart rate up or pick a relaxed routine if that’s more your vibe. Either way, it won’t aggravate arthritis and will help your overall health.
4. It’s great for any age or ability level
If you have trouble walking due to an injury or a chronic condition, swimming is one of the best ways to get a workout. Swimming is so gentle on the body that folks of any age or ability level can do it.
Even if you can’t swim laps, that’s OK! Aqua aerobics classes (aka aquarobics) gently build muscle and get your heart pumping without putting excess strain on your body. If group classes aren’t your thing, a few minutes of swimming at your own pace still engages your whole body and gets blood flowing.
Bonus: You get to feel like a mermaid. Hitting 10,000 steps doesn’t let you live your Ariel fantasy, but 10 minutes in the pool will.
5. Pregnant? No problem!
Nobody expects you to beat any Olympic records while your eggo is preggo. But you should stay physically active during your pregnancy if possible. Swimming is one of the safest ways to work out while pregnant. It can also help with common pregnancy symptoms like backaches and swollen joints.
A 2010 study found that women who swam during pregnancy had a slightly lower chance of preterm delivery. And don’t worry about the chemicals — the same study found that chlorine (and other pool chemicals) had no effect on babies or pregnant women.
6. Folks with asthma can breathe easy
For people who are worried about breathing, a huge body of water may not sound like a great choice. But swimming is ideal for people with asthma.
A 2012 study found that swimmers had greater lung capacity and better breath control than runners. This doesn’t mean swimming cures asthma, but it can help build strength and lung capacity.
A slight word of warning: A 2010 review found that chlorine might make asthma slightly worse. While this review isn’t conclusive, it’s a good idea to be careful as you start your swimming routine. Use a saltwater pool if possible, and talk to a doctor if you’re concerned about chlorine.
7. You’ll notice a happier mind
In general, exercise helps relieve anxiety and depression — and that includes swimming.
Reminder: Swimming isn’t a cure-all
Talk to a professional if you have symptoms of depression or anxiety. Swimming might be a great addition to their suggested treatments.
8. Swimming regulates blood sugar
Limiting your sugar intake is the best way to balance your blood sugar. But swimming can help!
A 2016 study found that high intensity swimming three times a week increased insulin sensitivity and balanced blood glucose. This can reduce your risk of diabetes. And if you have diabetes, swimming can help keep your blood sugar in check.
9. It may decrease your risk of heart disease
Carotid arterial stiffness: If you’re thinking “WTF is that?”, you’re not alone. But it’s very important! Carotid arterial stiffness refers to the stiffness of the walls of the heart. Stiff walls mean a higher risk of heart disease, and flexible walls mean a lower risk.
One study found that people with a regular swimming routine lost weight and had decreased carotid arterial stiffness, lower blood pressure, and increased blood flow to the brain. All these benefits reduce the risk of heart disease.
10. It burns up calories
Since your whole body is working, it’s no surprise that swimming is a real calorie burner. Swimming burns the same amount of calories as jogging (without the joint stress). And that’s if you’re swimming at a relaxed pace!
Another perk: You can swim every day! Swimming is gentle enough on the body that you can swim at a fairly high intensity (heart rate-wise) every day without risking injury. Of course, rest days are always recommended.
11. It’ll help you slay that REM cycle
“I’ve never had a problem sleeping,” said no one ever. In general, exercise helps you sleep. A 2010 study on aerobic activity and insomnia found that people who exercised slept better, slept longer, and felt better during the day than those who were less active.
Everyone in the study also practiced good sleep hygiene (going to bed around the same time each night, keeping the sleeping area quiet and dark, etc.).
12. People who swim live longer (maybe)
Are pools the real fountains of youth? A 2017 study found that swimming on a regular basis was associated with a 28 percent lower risk of dying from any cause and a 41 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease.
Swimming might not make you any younger, but it could help you live a healthier and possibly longer life.
13. It reduces stress
If you’re a human being, you’re probably stressed on the reg. Lucky for you, swimming reduces stress.
A 2012 survey commissioned by Speedo found that 74 percent of participants had reduced stress after swimming. And 70 percent said swimming left them mentally refreshed.
Keep in mind that any form of exercise can help reduce stress. But water-based activities are known to have additional soothing effects. It’s just hard to be stressed out when you’re floating in water.
A new fitness routine of any kind can be intimidating. With these tips, it will be a little easier!
Step one: Proper attire
Simply being in a swimsuit in public can cause anxiety. If you’re self-conscious about your body, remember this: People really don’t care about you. That sounds mean, but it’s actually good! At the pool, most people are focused on themselves. Once you get in the water, they can’t see your body anyway.
Also, pick a suit that’s comfortable. For people with ta-tas, a one-piece might be best — not for modesty but for comfort. It’s hard to work out if you’re worried about a boob popping out in the middle of an Aqua Zumba class.
Invest in a nice pair of goggles and a swim cap. Goggles prevent eye irritation and help you see as you swim down the lane. The cap prevents your luscious locks from getting crunchified by the chlorine or saline.
Michael Phelps has been known to wear Speedo Speed Sockets.
Find your pool
Though all pools may seem the same, there are some key differences that might affect your workout. Would you rather swim in an indoor or outdoor pool? Depending on where you live, outdoor pools might be off-limits for most of the year. Indoor pools are more common for exercise.
If you hate chlorine, find a saltwater pool. Saltwater pools are just like they sound — they use a salt process to clean the water, and you avoid the irritating effects of chlorine.
Pick a lane
Some pools have slow, medium, and fast lanes. If you aren’t sure of your speed, start with slow and work your way up at your own pace.
Other things to consider:
- How crowded is the pool?
- What are the hours for lap swimming?
- Do they have aquarobics classes?
- Are there loud kids in the pool all the time?
- Is there a lifeguard to ensure safety?
- How many lanes does the pool have?
Most pools have designated hours and lanes for lap swimming. Be sure to check the schedule before showing up.
Switch it up
You can also ditch the pool altogether. Swimming in a lake or ocean is great. Just be sure to swim in designated areas with a lifeguard. If you’re swimming without a lifeguard, never swim in open water alone. Bring a friend.
For ocean swimming, know how to get out of strong currents or riptides. Even in lakes and rivers, there are currents and other obstacles. Be sure to stay alert, never swim after drinking alcohol, and stay in water you know is safe for swimming.
If you’re a new swimmer, it’s best to start in a pool and work up natural bodies of water.
Consider cold water swimming
More and more people are singing the praises of cold water swimming. There is some evidence that swimming in cold water may increase your immune response and relieve stress, but those things are true for any kind of exercise.
More research needs to be done before we can say anything conclusive about warm vs. cold swims. If you want to try swimming in a cold body of water, go ahead! But be sure to have a buddy and leave the water if you feel uncomfortable.
An important note on COVID-19
COVID-19 is not spread through water, and the chemicals in pools kill the virus. But that doesn’t mean a pool is perfectly safe. The risk is the people. Be sure to keep a 6-foot distance from any other swimmer and retain that distance when you’re out of the water. You don’t need to wear a mask while you’re swimming, but wear a mask in the other public areas.
The same is true for lake and beach swimming. The water is safe, but the people pose a threat. Keep your distance and wear a mask on land, and you should have a low risk of contracting the virus.
As with any form of exercise, it’s best to warm up first. Start with a nice stretch. Stretch your shoulders, hips, and legs for 10 to 15 seconds apiece. You don’t want to stretch cold muscles, so be sure you feel warm before getting into a stretching routine. A 5-minute cardio sesh is great to get the blood flowing.
You can warm up in the pool. Swim at a leisurely pace for 5 minutes before going into a more rigorous routine. Since swimming is gentle on your body, the warmup doesn’t need to be complicated.
What about the “no eating 30 minutes before swimming” rule? Well, that’s pretty much crap. Should you hit up a buffet before a swim? No. But there’s no real rule about how empty your stomach must be before a swim.
Eating a light meal can give you energy to complete your workout, so don’t be afraid to have a small bite before hitting the pool.
Choose your workout
A pool has a few workout options, including:
Swimming from end to end of the pool with rests in between as needed. Beginners will usually stick to freestyle stroke (aka front crawl). For a heightened workout, try breaststroke or butterfly stroke. These are more complicated moves, but they burn more calories.
Backstroke is good if you’re anxious about bringing your head up to breathe, but it’s harder to control where you’re going. Ideally, backstroke is best for a private pool or body of water where you don’t have to stay in a small lane.
It’s aerobics in a pool! These group classes are good way to get a very low intensity workout. Plus, they’re hella fun.
In these classes, you’ll be standing in the pool, not swimming. You’ll do curls, squats, and moves you might see in a Zumba class. You can attend at any age.
Water running is just what it sounds like. It allows you to run with a lower risk of joint injury. The increased resistance of the water makes running challenging in a whole new way.
A lot of the HIIT exercises you’d do in a gym can also be done in a pool! These exercises (like star jumps, lunges, and kicks) help you gain strength and work specific muscle groups while decreasing risk to your joints. It’s a great way to mix things up when you get tired of swimming laps.
Pools have slightly different etiquette rules than the gym. Know these and you’ll avoid awkwardness at your first swim session!
- Shower first. At almost any pool, you need to rinse your body in the shower before getting in the pool. So step in the shower (with your swimsuit on), and then go for a swim.
- Don’t surprise a swimmer. If someone is already in the lane you’ll be swimming in, let them know you’re there. Either make eye contact or sit at the edge of the pool and put your legs in the water. This gives the swimmer time to see someone is there and avoid a collision. Once they acknowledge you, get into the pool and start swimming when they’re at the other end or at least 10 feet away.
- Stay in your lane. If you can, pick an empty lane. If you need to share a lane, pick a swimmer who swims at about your pace.
- Practice the side swim or circle swim. If there are two people in the lane, pick a side and stay there. That way, it’s like you each have your own lane! If there are three or more people, circle swim. Just remember to keep to your right.
- Try the tap and pass. If someone taps your foot, it means they’re going to pass on your left. If you need to pass, do the same!
As in any other workout situation, some people might give some side-eye to a newcomer who isn’t super familiar with the rules. If you’re new and make an etiquette mistake, that’s OK. You’ll get the lay of the land in no time.
Swimming is a ton of fun, but it can also be risky. Be sure to understand safety procedures before screaming “CANNONBALL!” *splash*
- Take a lesson. If you’re worried about your swimming abilities, take a lesson! It’s not just for kids. Learning proper swimming techniques can save your life and give you a good workout.
- Don’t push it. As with all workouts, listen to your body. Don’t push yourself to the point of pain. If you start hurting or cramping up, get yourself to the edge of the pool. Always call for a lifeguard for assistance if needed.
- Take a breather. Sometimes getting water in your mouth or working out a little too hard can make you lose your breath. If that’s the case, get to the edge of the pool. Let your breathing get back to normal before you continue your workout. If you’re still having trouble breathing, call the lifeguard for help immediately.
- Drink up. Sure, you’re literally in water, but you probably don’t want to take refreshing gulps of chlorine or salt water to quench your thirst. Bring a water bottle and take sips during breaks to make sure you’re properly hydrated.
- Thunderbolts and lightning. If you’re swimming outside and you see lightning, get out of the water. Wait 30 minutes after you hear the last thunderclap before you start swimming again.
- Keep kids safe. If you’re swimming with children, keep an eye on them. Young children are at a very high risk of drowning, so keep them physically with you or in your line of sight at all times. Older kids might be better swimmers, but they don’t always know their limits. They need constant supervision too.
All that stuff makes swimming sound scary, but we’re just covering the bases. Swimming in a pool with a lifeguard is one of the safest forms of exercise. Just know your limits.