The last time you swam laps in a pool might have been in your high school gym class. Even then, you spent more time praying the overpowering chlorine didn’t do some serious damage to your hair than you did practicing your butterfly stroke. It’s time to change that. Swimming can burn anywhere from 200 to 800 calories per hour, making it a killer workout to add to your regimen. Not convinced yet? These benefits of swimming will have you suiting up and diving in to get stronger than ever. (You’ll definitely want to try these swimming workouts.)
It counts as both cardio and strength training.
One of the biggest benefits of swimming is that you’ll no longer have to decide if today’s workout is going to be cardio-heavy or weight-focused. When you’re swimming, if you aren’t moving constantly, you’re sinking (forced cardio, FTW!), making for a killer workout that keeps your heart rate elevated. And since water is about 800 times denser than air, says swimming and triathlon coach Earl Walton, owner of Tailwind Endurance in New York City, your muscles will have to fight against constant resistance while you’re in the water. (Here’s how to get the most out of your pool time.)
It’s a low-impact workout.
Not only do low-impact workouts like swimming allow injured athletes stay fit while taking it easy on their joints, but it may also mean more results, one of the key benefits of swimming: “You can swim at higher intensities on a regular basis without feeling wear and tear on your body,” says Walton. Unlike other high-intensity workouts, you could have a super-hard workout one day and still be in the pool the next, he says. Bonus: Research in the International Journal of Sports Medicine shows swimming is better than straight-up rest for exercise recovery.
It’s great for your lungs
When your face is under water, oxygen is at a premium. In turn, your body adapts to use oxygen more efficiently, says Walton. Plus, it learns to take in more fresh air with every breath, and expel more carbon dioxide with every exhalation. A study in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology even found that swimmers had better tidal volume (the amount of air that moves in and out of the lungs during relaxed breathing) compared to runners, one of the under-the-radar benefits of swimming. This results in lower resting heart rates, lower blood pressure, and, as you’ll see next, better running performance.
It makes you a better runner
By increasing your ability to take in and effectively use oxygen, swimming increases your endurance capacity like crazy, says Walton. That’s great news if you’re hoping to complete your first half-marathon this year. It also means you can run faster mile after mile without getting winded. In a 2013 Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports study, swimmers who followed a controlled breathing technique (taking two breaths per pool length) improved their running economy by 6 percent after just 12 swim sessions. Air-fueled benefits aside, swimming trains your glutes and hamstrings, your core, and your shoulders—all of which are needed for improved running form and performances, says Walton. (If you’re a new swimmer, these are the strokes you need to master.)
Anyone can do it
One of the best benefits of swimming is its inclusiveness. Whether you’re recovering from an injury, pregnant (Walton has trained women in the pool on their due dates), a new mom, or an Ironman competitor, swimming can give you a great workout (that is, as long as you know how to swim). You control the pace, intensity, and what you get out of every session, he says. (Ready to swim in open water? Read these swimming tips before you dive in.)
It seriously reduces stress.
While exercise-induced endorphins will do wonders for your stress levels, getting in the water for your workout may have its own special brand of mood-boosting benefits, says Walton. Being submerged in water dulls the amount of sensory information that bombards your body, helping to bring on feelings of calm, according to a study published in Pain Research & Management. Researchers have found that regular flotation tank sessions were effective at relieving symptoms in patients suffering from conditions related to chronic stress. No wonder you love soaking in the bathtub—it offers the same benefits of swimming.
It turns back the clock.
Regular swimmers are biologically 20 years younger than their driver’s licenses say they are, according to research from Indiana University. Scientists say that, even up until your 70th birthday, swimming affects blood pressure, cholesterol levels, cardiovascular performance, central nervous system health, cognitive functioning, muscle mass, and blood chemistry to be much more similar to that of your younger self. With all of these benefits of swimming, who needs night cream?
It hits otherwise underworked muscles.
“You don’t sit at your desk with your arms over your head,” says Walton. But when you’re in the pool, your arms are all over the place, meaning you need to work your often-neglected lats, deltoids, and traps, he says, which you aren’t targeting those when you’re on a bike or pounding the pavement. Since so much of swimming is about staying balanced and level in the water (while both your arms and legs are moving, mind you), swimming helps you develop the deep stabilizing muscles in your core and lower back that women often miss.
It makes you smarter.
Blood flow to the brain increased by up to 14 percent when men submerged themselves in water up to their hearts, according to a Journal of Physiology study. Researchers believe water’s pressure on the chest cavity may have something to do with it, and they are now studying whether water-based workouts improve blood flow to the brain better than do land-based ones. Stay tuned.
It opens you up to awesome experiences.
Want to hop off the back of a boat? Swim across the San Francisco Bay? Go snorkeling in the Bahamas? Win every game of Marco Polo? Mastering swimming will help you do all that, says Walton. “Swimming’s a life skill. It opens the doors to a lot of fun stuff.” (Yes, you don’t have to swim laps to get the health benefits!
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