7 Benefits of Swimming and How to Get Them
I was born and raised in the cold, landlocked prairies of Canada, but I still managed to be a pretty avid swimmer for my entire life. You might say that I am truly a fish out of water—unless you count the numerous slews and frozen ponds of Alberta as bodies of water. In any case, I am grateful to my parents for having allowed me to be a bit of a pool rat as a child. If you weren't so lucky, you can still benefit by getting into a swimming pool ASAP.
Health Benefits of Swimming
A while ago, I wrote about a report produced by the Swimming and Health Commission called The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming. In this study, it was estimated that those who swim for recreation or competition are eight times more likely to meet general physical activity guidelines (which means they were active for at least 150 minutes per week). The authors estimated that long-term swim training will also improve cardiorespiratory fitness or endurance in everyone, including (but not limited to) pregnant women, children with asthma, and adults with osteoarthritis.
The study also states that any amount of swimming, compared to those who engaged in no swimming, was associated with a 28% reduction in all-cause and a 41% reduction in cardiovascular-disease-cause mortality. The evidence that swimming has significantly improved health, quality of life, and a sense of community is also quite impressive.
Aside from that study, there's plenty of other evidence that going for a dip now and then is a great idea. Some of the more obvious benefits are that swimming is a full-body workout that requires you to to move your entire body against the resistance of the water. Because of this full-body resistance, swimming elevates your heart rate, which aids in building endurance, muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. It can also keep you cool on a hot day. But let's look at some of the less obvious benefits of swimming.
#1 - Swimming improves coordination, balance and posture.
When you think about your day, how much time do you spend in an upright position? Now think about how much time you spend in a prone position. Aside from being asleep (which is not a particularly active thing, hopefully), we don't spend all that much time doing activities in this very different body position. For that reason, among others, swimming is the perfect activity to challenge ourselves and build new neuronal connections that allow us to become more proficient at moving on completely different planes and in completely different body positions.
#2 - Swimming improves flexibility.
Swimming requires that we move our bodies (mostly our limbs) through a large range of motion. This means that your joints must adjust accordingly in order to achieve good power and speed in the water. We all know that maintaining flexibility and mobility as we age is important, but it also matters for you active youngsters out there who want to perform well and avoid injury.
#3 - Swimming provides low-impact movement
This benefit is especially helpful for people who are recovering from some type of injury or those living with other limiting physical conditions. Also, due to the joint-saving lowered gravity environment that water provides, it is very helpful as a recovery workout. Which leads me to the next benefit.
#4 - Swimming is a great activity for cross-training
In my article about Why Cross-Training is Essential, I explained that if you are a runner, it is a good idea to cross-train in the weight room to build strength and stability. If you are a weightlifter, throwing in the odd cardio session or yoga class can be a great way to help stay flexible and energetic. And if you are a human on this planet, moving as many limbs, in as many directions, on as many planes as you can is one of the best ways to stay healthy and fit. There are few better ways to get all that movement in than going for a swim.
#5 - Swimming helps build lung capacity and strength
It's like lifting weights with your respiratory system!
In a comparative study of lung functions in swimmers and runners, it was found that "Swimming exercise affects lung volume measurements as respiratory muscles including diaphragm of swimmers are required to develop greater pressure as a consequence of immersion in water during respiratory cycle ." Meaning that even if a runner breathes just a hard as a swimmer during their workout or event, a swimmer benefits more because of the resistance of the water. It's like lifting weights with your respiratory system!
#6 - Swimming alters your muscle fibres
An older study examined the effect of a normal collegiate swimming program along with an intense 10-day training period. During the study, they examined the peak tension (Po), negative log molar Ca2+ concentration (pCa)-force, and maximal shortening speed (Vmax) of the slow-twitch type I and fast-twitch type II fibres in the swimmers' deltoid muscles. Without getting overly sciencey or confusingly nerdy, in a nutshell, the effects found during the 10-day intense swimming period were similar to someone who engaged in a sprint training program or an explosive weight training period.
#7 - Swimming lowers stress
Yes, any kind of aerobic exercise has been shown to relieve some types of stress and even depression, but swimming holds a special power here. Let's look at it this way: when we're stressed out, our muscles get tense and tight. Tight muscles can cause other bodily reactions like headaches, back pain, and shoulder pain, which can lead to even more stress. When we go swimming, we elongate our muscles, we stretch and relax our bodies, which then allows the tension to dissipate. Along with that, the deep and rhythmic breathing that is required during a swim session has also been associated with bringing on a meditative state. Put those together and you have yourself a power antidote for stress.
How to Get the Benefits of Swimming
In my coaches notebook, I have well over a hundred different swim workouts. Each one has a specific purpose and a specific goal but there are a few things they all have in common. I will use those commonalities to give you a swim workout that you can do right away or spend some time working up to.
4 laps of front crawl (or freestyle) warmup 4 x 1 lap, alternating lengths of backstroke and front crawl. Rest at the wall for 30 seconds in between each lap. 4 x 1 lap, alternating lengths of breaststroke and front crawl. Rest at the wall for 30 seconds in between each lap. 4 x 1 lap, alternating lengths of sidestroke (or butterfly if you are able) and front crawl. Rest at the wall for 30 seconds in between each lap. 4 x 1 lap, of front crawl, alternating lengths of sprinting all-out and lengths of swimming easy. Rest at the wall for until fully recovered between each lap. 2 to 4 laps of cool-down, swimming slow and easy. You can change strokes or just do front crawl.
Pro Tip: Here's a tip about swimming terminology. A "length" is when you swim from one end of the pool to the other. A "lap" is when you swim one end to the other and back again. This is true whether the pool is 25 yards long (like in a hotel) or 150 yards long (like the pool by my house).
This workout contains some swim workout essentials that will give you the benefits I just listed: a warm-up, mixed stroke practice, some higher intensity intervals, and a cool-down. As you get more and more comfortable and ambitious, I would suggest adding in some drills to improve your swim stroke.
For those of you who aren't quite avid swimmers (yet) but still want to try hitting the pool, here is a sample water exercise routine that contains minimal swimming but still gives you the benefits of hitting the pool.
Warm-up by swimming 3 laps nice and easy, using whichever stroke you prefer (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, flutterboard kick or doggy paddle). Then aqua jog for 1 lap. Aqua jogging is essentially "running" with just your head and shoulders above the water, as fast as you can. Then jump out of the pool and do 10 pushups. Get back in the pool and aqua jog again for one lap. Swim 3 more laps but harder this time, again choosing whichever stroke you prefer (but I would suggest choosing a different one each time). Rest for 30 seconds.
Do this entire sequence three to five times. After you have completed the final round, do 2 laps of easy swimming to cool-down.
According to the CDC, swimming is the fourth most popular physical activity in the United States and also a good way to get some enjoyable regular movement into your day—movement that is unlike anything else we do regularly as bipedal, carbon-based, land mammals. So why not go and give it a try. Or, if you're already a swimmer, I encourage you to keep it up. I regularly get my Speedo-clad butt handed to me by swimmers who are nearly twice my age at the pool, which serves as great motivation for me to renew my pool membership every single month.