Swimming is the second most popular exercise activity in the United States. Swimming burns calories and is easy on the joints because the water supports your weight (body weight reduced to 10% of actual weight). Swimming also builds muscle strength and endurance, and improves cardiovascular fitness. Swimming is refreshing in summer, a potentially lifesaving skill and one that you can do safely into elder years.
Human beings have probably been swimming since they first found a body of water large enough in which to swim. Evidence of the activity can be seen in Stone Age cave drawings depicting individuals swimming. Egyptian clay seals from 4000 BC show four swimmers and others found in the Kebir desert also depict swimming. Written references to swimming appear in the Bible and the Greek poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Organized swimming began in England, France, Germany and the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the creation of swimming associations and clubs that competed against each other. High-profile events, such as Matthew Webb’s swim of the English Channel in 1875, also contributed to swimming’s visibility and led to its inclusion in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
By the 20th century, indoor pools were beginning to appear and most towns with populations over 20,000 had public outdoor pools. Today, swimming pools and clubs are a popular source for recreation. Recreation centers, Y’s, many high schools and colleges have swimming pools and competitive swim teams.
Swimming for fitness is ideal for almost anyone. Whether you swim laps or do aerobics in the shallow end, swimming is good for you.
Swimming also has two additional bonuses:
It could save your life!
Your ability to swim and feel comfortable in the water creates an opportunity to get involved in other water sports, such as kayaking, canoeing, sailing and water skiing.
Benefits of swimming
- Swimming uses all the major muscle groups.
- Swimming is an excellent cardiovascular workout.
- Swimming develops muscle strength, endurance and flexibility.
- Swimming is excellent for people who are overweight, pregnant, or have leg or lower back problems.
- Swimming provides most of the aerobic benefits of running, with many of the benefits of resistance training.
- Swimming does not strain connective tissues that running, aerobics and some weight-training regimens do.
Builds cardio vascular fitness. Just being in the water causes the heart rate to decrease by 10 beats per minute. And, the maximum heart rate during exercise, decreases by 10 to 30 beats per minute. Scientists aren’t certain why the heart rate decreases in water, but the lower temperature and reduced impact of gravity may be the cause.
In one study of sedentary middle-aged men and women who did swim-training for 12 weeks, scientists found that oxygen consumption increased by 10% and the amount of blood pumped with each beat improved by as much as 18%. Other studies have shown that a workout routine that includes swimming can help reduce and, possibly, prevent high blood pressure, which lowers your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Dr. Steven Blair, researcher at the University of South Carolina, also found that regular swimmers had a higher cardio respiratory fitness than walkers and sedentary people.
Burns calories. Swimming burns between 500-650 calories per hour depending on your stroke, how efficiently you swim and how buoyant you are (the more body fat you have the fewer calories it takes to swim). Research on swimming and calorie expenditure shows swimming, on average, burns 11% fewer calories than running and 3% fewer than biking but, as previously noted, with less potential for injury. One drawback of swimming for weight loss is that the metabolism “kick” stops pretty quickly due to lower heat build-up in the body.
Builds muscle mass. One look at any competitive swimmer shows swimming builds muscles head to toe. In a study of men who completed an eight-week swimming program, there was a 23.8% increase in the triceps muscle (the back of the arm).
Low impact. Buoyancy makes swimming the most injury-free sport. In water, your body weight is 1/10 of what it is on land. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you weigh 15 pounds standing in chin-deep water, which lessens the possibility of impact injuries. Swimming and/or water aerobics can be done more often because of the low incidence of high-impact injuries. It is also highly effective because movement in water has 12 times greater resistance than movement in air.
There’s no ground impact when you swim, so you protect the joints from stress and strain. For this reason the Arthritis Foundation strongly recommends swimming and water aerobics for people with arthritis.
Local chapters of the Arthritis Foundation offer a warm-water Aquatic Exercise program. Click here to find a program near you.
Good for injuries, arthritis or people with mobility impairments: Aquatic exercise and therapy are used to treat and prevent ankle, hip and knee injuries. As physical therapy, it gradually and gently rehabilitates and relaxes muscles and joints that have stiffened or atrophied. This is because the resistance of the water makes the muscles work hard without the strain or impact that is experienced on land.
Can be enjoyed for a lifetime: Swimming is good for all ages, from the young to the elderly. The United States Masters Swimming website lists a 100-104 year-old age group for competitive swimming!
Slows aging. Dr. Joel M. Stager of the University of Indiana, observes “When you look at all the standard physiological markers associated with the aging process, we see that every one of them is slowed dramatically in people who swim regularly.”
“Exercising in water slows down the aging process, and often quite dramatically – by upwards of 20 percent in some cases. You almost cannot overstate the benefits of exercising in water,” Stager concluded.
Stress reduction. Swimming is extremely relaxing because it allows more oxygen to flow to your muscles and forces you to regulate your breathing.
It’s a break from the summer heat. There’s nothing like it during the hot days of summer, whether it’s at the beach or in the pool.
It’s a family affair. Swimming and other water activities are something the entire family can share.
What equipment do you need for swimming?
The equipment is no more than a swimsuit. Although you can spend a lot of money and get a really fashionable or high tech suit, for swimming you only need one that is comfortable. You’re less likely to swim if you’re uncomfortable in your suit.
Goggles can be a nice addition to your tools if you are going to do a lot of swimming. They protect your eyes from chlorine (and anything else that may be in the water), and allow you to see where you’re going. You can even get prescription swim goggles if you wear glasses (check with your optician for availability).
Bathing caps may be required at some pools if you have long hair. You may also decide to wear a bathing cap to protect your hair from chlorine, keep the hair dry or cut down on resistance in the water. Many caps are made of latex, so beware if you suffer from latex allergies. You can find caps made of silicone, neoprene and Lycra; choose the one that fits your head and is comfortable.
How to get started swimming
Because of our natural buoyancy, most people can paddle around without a lesson, provided they feel comfortable in the water. But, there is no replacement for a lesson from a qualified instructor. A qualified swim instructor will have some type of certification, usually from the American Red Cross.
It’s never too late to learn.
Any recreation center, Y, fitness center or senior center with a pool should offer swim lessons. You may have a choice of group or private lessons. Opt for a private lesson if you have a strong fear of the water, need special attention and can afford it. Otherwise, a group lesson should be sufficient.
Adult lessons are usually one hour, but that may vary based on health and fitness level. Lessons for children younger than 6 years of age should be 15-30 minutes in length and 6 to 12 year olds need 30-45 minutes.
Don’t be surprised if you start in the shallow end where you can stand and work on breathing techniques. Also, and for safety reasons, especially if you’re a beginner, you can stand by the side of the pool and hold on while you kick, or perhaps hold on to a kick-board and kick across the pool to work on kicking strokes. In beginning lessons the instructor may use kick-boards, float belts, or other flotation devices to assist you getting comfortable in the water.
Your instructor will show you the breathing and stroke techniques separately, and then integrate the two as you get more skilled. Your instructor will know how quickly to progress.
What are the basic swimming strokes?
Crawl (freestyle), backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly are the most popular swim strokes and the strokes used in competition. The breaststroke and butterfly are more difficult to learn than the backstroke and crawl.
This is the most popular stroke and the easiest to learn. It is a simple flutter kick and windmill arm motion on your belly. The most difficult part is coordinating the breathing, since your face is in the water most of the time. Watch the Video
The backstroke is probably the easiest stroke to learn. It’s similar to the crawl in its use of the windmill arm stroke and flutter kick. Watch the Video
Swimming the breaststroke competitively involves perfect timing and, in fact, you can be disqualified from competition if you miss even one stroke. The basics are: your arms pull in a predetermined fashion, you breathe, you frog kick (arms alternate with the kick), you glide. Watch the Video
This is a difficult stroke and not recommended for beginners because it requires perfect timing and a good deal of strength. During the stroke, the legs move together in a dolphin kick (imagine your legs and feet as a mermaid’s tail), the arms move together to push the water downward and backward, and the torso undulates like an earthworm as the body moves forward through the water. Watch the Video
What if you already know how to swim?
Join a local pool and get started. Swimming is a tough activity and requires lots of endurance. But it will come back with practice.
Pace yourself. Swim for three to five minutes, or as long as you can manage without stopping. Then, take a breather at the side of the pool. When you’ve recovered, swim until you need another break, and so on. Or, you could use a kick board or float bell when you tire, so that you can continue to swim or slow down to work on technique.
Whatever method you choose to get back into it, swim consistently and, in just a few weeks, your swimming and general fitness will improve.
Are there swimming organizations that I can join?
Check your local municipal website, Y, recreation center or pool to see if they have a club that you can join. United States Masters Swimming has many clubs and organizes workouts, competitions, clinics, and workshops for adults ages 18 and over, with members as old as 100! Swim.iSport.com also has an excellent database searchable by zip code of pools public and private.
There are many clubs and pools that offer swim lessons for infants and children, but parents should be cautious. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believes children are not developmentally ready for formal swimming lessons until after their fourth birthday.
An estimated 5-10 million infants and preschool children participate in aquatic programs. However, parents should understand these should not be undertaken solely as a way to decrease the risk of drowning. Even though these programs can get children more comfortable in the water, parents should not feel their child is safe from drowning after participating in an aquatic program. They state, “Whenever infants and toddlers are in or around water, an adult should be within an arm’s length, providing touch supervision.”
In Swimming Programs for Infants and Toddlers the AAP reports drowning rates are highest among toddlers ages 1 to 2 years of age and is a leading cause of unintentional injury and death in that group.
Playing in the water can be fun and exciting while still being extremely dangerous. Anyone who likes to swim should exercise caution. Staying safe in and around water is usually accomplished with common sense.
- Learn to swim. Knowing how to swim is empowering and helps to keep you safe. Being able to swim may even save your life!
- Try to swim in supervised areas with lifeguards on duty.
- Follow the rules. If you are swimming in an area designated for swimming, follow the posted rules. If there are no rules posted, swim with extreme caution.
- If you are swimming in open water: an ocean, river or lake, be sure to familiarize yourself with the area in which you are swimming. Be alert for strong rip tides, currents, deep or shallow water and submerged hazards.
- Never swim in irrigation or drainage canals! Canals have strong currents that can trap swimmers and hold them under water. Canal water also may contain pesticides or fertilizers that can cause reactions in swimmers.
- Know your abilities and those of your children. If you aren’t a strong swimmer don’t swim in water over chest deep, that way if you get into trouble you can just stand up.
- Be aware of the dangerous “too’s” – too tired, too much sun, too far from safety, too much strenuous activity.
- Stay sober. Alcohol and drugs affect balance, judgment, coordination, swimming skills and the body’s ability to stay warm.
- If you have pools or spas at home, be sure to follow the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission’s suggestions for pool safety.
Y’s – Many local Y’s have pools and feature swimming lessons and other aquatic classes for people of all ages. Here’s how to find your Y.
USA Swimming is the National Governing Body for the sport of swimming in the United States. They promote swimming and create opportunities for swimmers and coaches of all backgrounds to participate and advance in the sport through clubs, events and education.
United States Masters Swimming has many clubs and organizes workouts, competitions, clinics, and workshops for adults ages 18 and over, with members as old as 100!
U.S. Swim Schools Association – A directory of swimming schools
Holmér, I. Oxygen uptake during swimming in man. Journal of Applied Physiology. 1972 Oct; 33(4):502-9.
Lavoie, J.M., et al. Skeletal muscle fibre size adaptation to an eight-week swimming programme. European Journal of Applied Physiology Occup. 1980; 44(2):161-5.
Martin, W.H., et al. Cardiovascular adaptations to intense swim training in sedentary middle-aged men and women. Circulation. 1987 Feb; 75(2):323-30.
American Academy of Pediatrics, http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics%3b105/4/868. July 28, 2007.
http://www.aap.org/advocacy/archives/aprswim.htm. July 27, 2007.
American Red Cross