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10 Benefits of Swimming for Anyone Who Wants to Switch Up Their Cardio
This low-impact sport has a lot to offer.
Feeling meh about your cardio routine? Consider swimming. This low-impact sport can breathe new life into your workout routine, and there are tons of other benefits from swimming that might make you want to sub it in as a fresh cardio option.
But before you put on your suit and hit the lap pool, there are some things you should know about swimming for fitness. We tapped three experts for insights on proper technique, gear, and how to safely and effectively start a swimming routine. We also rounded up 10 seriously awesome mental and physical benefits of swimming, so you can feel extra good about adding pool time to your schedule. Read on for everything you need to know.
What kind of exercise is swimming?
Swimming counts as cardiovascular exercise. That’s because it involves lots of large muscle groups working together simultaneously and continuously, which requires your heart to work hard to pump oxygen throughout your body. As a result, you feel breathless, and your heart rate increases. Swimming also incorporates muscular endurance work, since tackling lap after lap requires your muscles to function for long periods of time.
In some circumstances—say, a workout that’s heavy on fast sprints—swimming can double as strength training and power building. But the majority of the time, swimming is going to be considered a type of cardio workout.
How can beginners get started swimming?
It’s important to swim with the right stroke technique, since that can help you move through the water more efficiently and reduce your risk of injury. So if you don’t have a strong background in the sport, it’s a good idea to get help from a qualified coach before you start swimming on your own.
Look for someone who is certified as a water safety instructor, Tracy Doherty, NSCA-certified personal trainer and USA Swim Coach level 1, tells SELF. (It’s even better if they have competitive swimming experience and a background in anatomy and physiology!) Both USA Swimming and the Red Cross have databases where you can find qualified instructors. You can also go to your local pool and ask if they have an in-house instructor, certified swim coach Roger Montenegro, C.S.C.S., tells SELF.
If you can’t afford a coach or don’t have one accessible to you, there are online resources that can help you improve your stroke technique, says Doherty. (Check out her recommendations here, here, and here.)
What kind of swimming gear do you need?
In terms of gear, a swimsuit is (obviously) a must. Get one that feels comfortable and secure so you don’t have to worry about it falling down as you swim. One-piece suits are typically more comfortable and easy to exercise in than two-piece suits. This might be different from the type of suit you wear when lounging around the pool—it’s completely okay to have one for each purpose!
Another must? Goggles. “You need to be able to see to swim,” says Doherty. “If it’s blurry, and you don’t know where you’re going, then you’re going to start to change your stroke.” She recommends getting goggles with adjustable nose pieces so that you can fit them to your face, which reduces the risk of leakage. Check out the Speedo, Arena, or TYR brands, suggests Doherty.
Many experts also recommend swimming caps for people who want to keep their hair out of the way while swimming. Silicone swim caps tend to feel more comfortable than latex and are more effective than cloth caps at keeping water out and reducing drag. Last, consider purchasing a pair of fins, as they naturally help you learn how to kick better, says Montenegro. Buy short fins (not the long fins that scuba divers use), says Doherty, who recommends fins by Speedo, Finis, and TYR. You should also bring a pair of shower shoes or flip-flops to wear around the pool and the locker room to guard against issues like athlete’s foot.
How often should you swim for fitness?
When it comes to actually getting in the water, start slowly and ease your way into a swimming routine. Swimming is a challenging sport, and even the fittest athletes (think marathoners and intense cyclists) can struggle with it at first, says Doherty, so don’t be discouraged if just three minutes of straight swimming in the pool leaves you winded. Start with 20- to 30-minute sessions, and swim one length at a time, suggests Doherty.
From there, slowly ramp up your duration and distance, and be as consistent with your routines as you can.
“Frequency in the water is probably the most important thing for you to get better,” Andrew Stasinos, NSCA-certified personal trainer, ASCA Level 2 certified swim coach, and USAT Level 2 certified triathlon coach, tells SELF. Even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, it all adds up! If you’re able to consistently swim three times a week, you should see big improvements in about six weeks, says Doherty.
Final tip: Once you get into a swimming routine, don’t be afraid to mix up your workouts. “Most people that go into swimming just want to swim back and forth, and then they get bored,” says Doherty. Keep things interesting by joining a group swim lesson, class, or workout. Or if you prefer to stroke on your own, add variety to your workout by incorporating different strokes and drills. Here are some freestyle drills, recommended by Doherty, to get you started.
However you approach your swim workouts, know that you’re reaping serious physical and mental benefits every time you hit the lap pool.
7 physical benefits of swimming
Like other forms of cardio, swimming can be great for your health and well-being. For proof, check out these physical benefits of swimming.
1. Accessible, lifelong sport
Swimming, says Stasinos, is “something you can do your entire life.” That’s because unlike high-impact activities such as running and jumping, swimming is a non-weight-bearing activity that is gentle on your skeletal system, making it a solid choice for exercisers of all ages and ability levels. Because of this low-impact nature, people with pain, injuries, or limitations that prohibit their participation in other sports can often find fitness with it. (Of course, if you have a history of injury or pain, check with your doctor first before you start swimming to make sure it’s a safe activity for you.)
2. Improved heart and lung health
As mentioned, swimming is stellar cardiovascular exercise, so it’s no surprise that the sport is great for your heart and lungs. A 2013 study in Evidence-Based Child Health of kids with asthma found that regular swimming increased cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) fitness as well as lung function. And another 2013 study, this one in the International Educational E-Journal involving healthy students between the ages of 17 and 22, concluded that an eight-week swimming program significantly increased their lung functioning too.
3. Total-body activation
The high density of water—which, fun fact, is nearly 800 times that of air—means you can build muscle strength as you move through it, according to the Mayo Clinic. Swimming is a “total-body strengthener,” says Stasinos, explaining that proper body positioning in any of the strokes requires you to activate muscles in your legs, torso, and arms. Swimming, adds Montenegro, especially targets your shoulders, triceps, lats, obliques, abs, quads, and calves.
Once you’ve mastered proper stroke technique, you can increase the strength challenge and build muscle mass by using resistance tools like paddles (which attach to your hands) and parachutes (which tie onto your waist), says Stasinos. That said, if building strength is one of your goals, you’ll want to also incorporate on-land strength training to fully challenge your muscles.
4. Better breath control
One reason swimming can feel so hard is that you can’t always breathe when you want to. “You really have to be comfortable putting your face in the water and knowing how to control your breath,” says Montenegro; otherwise you could end up with a mouth (or nose) full of chlorine. The key to breathing correctly when swimming is to steadily exhale through your nose when your face is underwater, and then inhale through your mouth when your face is out of the water.
By swimming consistently, you can improve your breath control, which can benefit your life outside the pool. For example, knowing how to control your breath can come in handy while doing other workouts like running or weightlifting, and also while managing your mental health through activities like meditation and breathing exercises.
5. Improved coordination
Let’s face it: There is a lot of coordination involved with swimming. No matter what stroke you’re doing, your arms, legs, and core all have to work together to get your body across the pool. In freestyle, for example, your legs have to kick constantly while your torso rotates and your arms perform alternating pulls.
With time and consistency, new swimmers should notice their coordination abilities improve. Indeed, a 2010 study of elderly people published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging concluded that regular swimming may result in improved hand-eye coordination. And hand-eye coordination is important in a number of activities, from playing catch with your kids to crushing the choreography in Zumba class.
6. Increased core strength
You may think swimming is all about your arms and legs, but ideal stroke technique involves a good amount of core engagement too. Solid core activationis what helps you rotate properly in freestyle and backstroke, what propels you forward in butterfly, and what helps you dive, kick, and push off the wall effectively when swimming all its strokes. In other words, having a strong core is essential to being a strong swimmer.
So if you swim regularly with proper technique, you can improve your core strength—no crunches or planking required.
7. Better balance
As mentioned, swimming can build serious core strength. And having a strong core is a key part of good balance. That’s because your core is your balance center, and a strong core allows you to control your body’s positioning and maintain an upright position, as SELF previously reported.
So by swimming regularly—and thus regularly working on your core strength—“it’s easier for your balance to improve,” says Doherty. And balance training can help you move about your day-to-day life with less risk of falling and also tackle your workouts with better performance and reduced risk of injury.
3 mental benefits of swimming
Swimming can be great for your mind too. Mental benefits of swimming include:
1. Sense of peace
Because swimming is such a rhythmic, repetitive activity that strips away many of your senses—you don’t hear, see, or smell much when your face is in the water—it can be very meditative, says Montenegro. “It’s very peaceful to be on your own swimming,” he says. “You really can’t pay attention to many other things.”
Adds Stasinos: “You can really tune out the world while you’re swimming.”
2. Improved self-confidence
Swimming is not the easiest sport. At times it can be “extremely frustrating,” says Stasinos. But on the flip side, working through and ultimately overcoming challenges in the pool “can be so gratifying,” Stasinos says.
After all, it’s hard not to feel good about yourself when you finally master breaststroke kick or stroke a mile straight for the first time.
3. Boosted mood
Swimming can make you feel good. Like, really good.
“Just like a runner’s high, there’s a swimming high that we tend to get in the water,” says Montenegro. Research backs this up: In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, college students who swam reported significantly less tension, depression, anger, and confusion, and more vigor after exercising than before their workout. A separate study, involving only women and published in the Journal of Psychology, found that the subjects’ moods improved after swimming. So while no form of exercise can solely stop mood issues, research does seem to suggest swimming can play a part in making you feel a bit better afterward.