8 Benefits of Swimming—And How to Get Started

Man swimming

Man swimming

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Swimming is a full body workout that is accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. Not only do you use your entire body to propel you through the water, working your heart, muscles, and lungs, but the buoyancy of the water allows you to move without putting as much stress on your joints as you would with higher-impact activities like walking or running.

As the fourth most popular sport in the U.S., swimming also offers a number of health benefits. In fact, people who swim have about half the risk of death compared with people who are inactive. Plus, it is a lifesaving skill that everyone should have regardless of their age.

Here are the health benefits of swimming and how to get started.

Helps Manage Arthritis

If you have osteoarthritis, you may want to consider spending more time in the water. Swimming can reduce your joint pain and stiffness as well as improve your muscle strength and functional capacity. Additionally, it can be just as effective as cycling—which is often prescribed for people with arthritis.

Some studies even show that swimming may be more beneficial than land-based activities for improving joint function, reducing pain, and enhancing quality of life in those with osteoarthritis. In fact, experts suggest that swimming and other aquatic exercises could be used alongside medication as well as with manual therapy and knee bracing.

As for those for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it is important to work with a healthcare provider to determine whether or not swimming may be right for you. While there is some evidence that people with RA may experience less joint pain and improved joint function, the studies are small and limited.

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May Improve Mental Health

Swimming is one of the few sports that allows you to escape the outside world. Regardless of whether you are submerged in water swimming across a lake or doing laps in the community pool, you are essentially unplugged while you are exercising. This time away from technology can offer a number of mental health benefits. Plus, the sensation of the water gliding over the skin can be relaxing.

More specifically, swimming can not only boost your mood, but also may be useful in combatting anxiety. In fact, swimming on a consistent basis can help you manage your response to stress. Meanwhile, the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine help you feel more at ease.

Swimming also can be beneficial for those with depression because it significantly reduces symptoms and improves mood, according to a review of multiple studies. In two of the studies reviewed, participants reported nearly 80% improvement in their symptoms.

Meanwhile, a study involving a 10-week swim program found that participants experienced reduced fatigue, anger, and depression symptoms. They also reported an improved mood and a heightened sense of well-being. And, a few case studies suggest that swimming consistently may reduce the need for antidepressants.

Improves Heart Health

Just like other forms of cardiovascular exercise, swimming supports your heart health. For instance, a study of 43 people with prehypertension or stage one hypertension showed that after 12 weeks of swimming, the participants had considerably lower blood pressure. They also showed signs of improved cardiovascular health.

Similarly, another study on moderate-intensity swimming for eight weeks demonstrated that swimming improves both heart health and brain health. The researchers noted that swimming lowered blood pressure, improved vascular stiffness, and increased blood flow to the brain.

Provides Benefits for Older Adults

Swimming also is an ideal form of exercise for older adults, especially because it is a full body workout that has a low risk of injury. Not only are you working your heart and lungs with every movement, but you are not taxing your ligaments and joints in the process.

It also reduces your risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Even the risk of sarcopenia, an age-related decline in muscle mass, is reduced because swimming creates the resistance you need to strengthen muscles.

Plus, there is some evidence that swimming and other water-based activities may improve your quality of life and decrease your risk of disability. Swimming also can have a positive impact on bone health—particularly for post-menopausal people.

There is even some evidence that using aquatic exercise as an intervention may reduce the behavioral and psychological symptoms in people with dementia as well as improve their psychological well-being.

Improves Sleep

If you have trouble sleeping at night due to pain or you regularly battle insomnia, swimming may help improve your sleep. While most research on how exercise impacts sleep has focused on land-based exercises, there is some evidence the swimming can have the same effect.

For example, one study of 30 adults with chronic musculoskeletal pain found that six weeks of moderate-intensity aquatic exercise improved their sleep and reduced pain. Meanwhile, a study on older adults with insomnia found that the participants experienced improved sleep quality and overall life satisfaction after participating in consistent aerobic exercise like swimming.

Burns Calories

If your health goals include burning more calories or losing weight, you may want to consider adding swimming to your workout regimen. Not only will you burn a significant number of calories, but you will be working out your entire body. Plus, most people can achieve a calorie deficit when swimming.

For instance, a 185-pound person swimming laps at a vigorous pace for 30 minutes could potentially burn 420 calories. Meanwhile, a person of the same weight participating in aquatic exercise or swimming at a more general pace for 30 minutes could potentially burn between 168 calories and 252 calories. As a comparison, the same 185-pound person would burn roughly 159 calories while walking 30 minutes at a moderate pace or 126 calories while weightlifting.

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Strengthens Muscles

Swimming is a type of resistance training where the water provides the resistance as you move your body through it. In fact, the resistance you get from water is 10 times what you would experience on land.

As you swim, you also are working almost every muscle in your body, so you can expect to build strength in your upper body, your lower body, and your core if you swim consistently. In fact, the strokes you use to swim target your body's main muscle groups. From your abs, back, forearms, and shoulders to your hamstrings and glutes, you can expect to use almost every muscle in your body.

That said, if you want to do more than just strengthen your muscles, you may want to incorporate other exercises as well like weightlifting. Keep in mind that swimming is a low impact activity that is easy on the joints and can help improve your strength and fitness levels. But depending on your health and fitness goals, it may make sense to also incorporate some high impact activities as well.

Decreases Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors

Swimming is not only an easily-accessible form of exercise, but it also can be performed by people of all ages, weights, and fitness levels. It also can play a key role in reducing your risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

In fact, researchers in a small study of 40 people found that 16 weeks of regular swimming sessions helped to reduce metabolic syndrome risk factors like cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure. Consequently, swimming could be considered non-pharmacological approach to managing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Regular swimming also improved metabolism rates, boosted mood, and increased the number of calories burned.

How to Get Started

To get started swimming, you will first need to find a safe place to swim nearby. For beginners, a pool is sometimes the easiest place to learn because there are lanes you can use and there are usually lifeguards on duty. As you get more comfortable, you can try swimming in open water.

If you are completely new to swimming, it is important that you learn to swim in a safe environment from a credentialed instructor. During your swimming lessons, you should learn different strokes, breathing techniques, and other tips on how to swim efficiently. To find adult swimming lessons near you, check the American Red Cross map of swim instructors or use the U.S. Masters Swimming database using your ZIP code.

If you already know how to swim but it is has been a while since you have done a swimming workout, it is important to start slow and try not to push yourself too hard too fast. Allow your body to adjust to swimming by limiting your swimming workouts to two to three times per week. Eventually, you could get to the point where you are comfortable being in the water every day.

Although swimming is generally a safe activity for people of all ages and fitness levels, it is still important to talk to a healthcare provider before starting a swimming routine. They can evaluate your medical history and your fitness level to determine what is right for you. Also, as a general rule, you should avoid swimming if you have recently had surgery, have open wounds, or are sick.

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Tips for Safe Swimming

While swimming is a great skill to have, there is more to safe swimming than just knowing how to do a few laps. Here are some other things to consider before diving into in a pool, a lake, or an ocean:

  • Enroll in an American Red Cross learn-to-swim course if you cannot swim.
  • Swim in designated areas that are supervised by lifeguards.
  • Avoid swimming alone; choose a swim buddy.
  • Designate someone to watch the water when swimming with a group.
  • Keep a close eye on children and do not rely on life jackets as supervision.
  • Make sure reaching or throwing equipment is nearby as well as a cell phone and a first aid kit.
  • Follow the rules regarding diving, swim times, and more.
  • Stay out of the water if you are sick or have diarrhea. 
  • Check for closures first if swimming in a lake or the ocean.
  • Avoid swimming in cloudy water as it could be a sign of germs or pathogens.
  • Use well-fitting, Coast Guard-approved life jackets if you need flotation assistance.

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A Quick Review

Swimming is a low impact, full body workout that helps improve your heart health and muscle strength. Because it tends to be less taxing on your joints, swimming also can be a great alternative for people with osteoarthritis or those who are getting older. Swimming can even boost your mood, improve your sleep, and lower your risk for metabolic conditions.

If you are considering adding swimming to your workout regimen it is important to do so safely. Only swim in designated areas where lifeguards are present and never swim alone. And, if you do not know how to swim, consider taking swim lessons from American Red Cross certified instructors or other knowledgeable professionals.

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