Is Swimming a Good Workout?

A sparkling pool is a beautiful temptation that reminds most people of childhood fun and summer freedom. But is swimming a good workout? The answer depends on who you are, and on your fitness goals.

Starting a new fitness program: Yes

Swimming is an impact-free workout that combines the resistance of pulling against the water with a cardio workout. That makes it a great exercise for people who are just beginning (or returning to) regular exercise. You’re unlikely to get injured in the water, or to push yourself past your limits. The pool is appealing in a way that might help you look forward to your workouts instead of dreading them. If you’ve been sedentary, you’ll get a decent cardio boost even if you’re not a fast swimmer, and you’ll be building upper body muscle at the same time.

Desk jockeys: Yes

If you spend a lot of time sitting at a computer, swimming could benefit you in many ways. Besides the cardiovascular and strength-building benefits, staying afloat in the water uses your body in ways that are the antithesis of sitting with rounded shoulders and head forward. 

No matter what swim stroke you’re using, staying afloat in the water requires you to engage your core muscles and pull your head back in line with your spine, or even press it the opposite direction. Using your arms to propel you through the water engages your shoulders and upper back and takes your arms through a full range of motion. You’ll feel posture improvement quickly with even a modest swim workout if you do it regularly.

Older adults: Yes

Muscle loss becomes a real problem for older adults, so the fact that swimming includes some resistance work in addition to cardio makes it a great choice. Being in the water also reduces the weight load on your joints, prevents injuries, and can make working out much easier for those with chronic pain conditions. Water aerobics has long been a popular choice with senior women for exactly these reasons, but swimming can have the same benefits. One caveat: Because your body isn’t bearing its own weight in the water or experiencing any impact, swimming is not as useful for preventing osteoporosis as weight-bearing exercises like walking or jogging. 

Weight loss: Yes, but…

Swimming is not the fastest way to burn calories — but it does burn them. If you are carrying a lot of extra weight, swimming can help you become active and incorporate exercise into your life without the risk of injury to your feet, knees, or hips. If you find swimming more appealing than land-based workouts, then the pool can help you build a consistent exercise habit. Be careful not to overeat after you swim; research shows that swimming stimulates hunger more than other workouts. 

Elite athletes: Generally no

If you are already in great shape, can swimming help advance your fitness level? Maybe not. Today’s Olympic swimmers have incredible physiques, but they are cross-training in the gym. If you look back at earlier examples like Mark Spitz, when swimmers only trained in the pool, you’ll see that while they’re lean and strong they don’t have the bulk or definition you see today. To get a good muscular or cardio workout in the pool, an athlete would need to either be pushing themselves hard — racing competitively, for instance — or using props in the pool to create added resistance. 

Swimming is an appealing workout with some benefits in terms of resistance and cardio fitness. It is a perfect sport for people with mobility issues, chronic pain, obesity, or poor fitness. It’s a great antidote to sitting and can improve posture significantly. However, accomplished athletes may find it difficult to advance their fitness level in the pool.

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