By Lauren Clark published
Tapping into the benefits of swimming is a good idea if you're looking to give your health an effective boost. While doing lengths in the pool might be something you tend to do only on holiday, it is very worth your while to make it a regular part of your exercise routine.
Swimming is a seriously effective cardio and strength training workout that will improve both your mental and physical health. Much like walking for weight loss, swimming regularly is a low-impact way to get fit, aiding heart health and flexibility too. And, while indoor swimming is a simple way into this form of exercise, dipping a toe into wild swimming can be a thrilling option for losing weight in a healthy, sustainable way. After all, there are numerous health benefits of swimming in the sea, but lakes and outdoor pools will also give your body a cold-water boost, offering up some beautiful scenery to boot.
With the help of experts, we explore the main benefits of swimming for your overall health, as well as which stroke to avoid doing too much of if you want to swerve injury and the best techniques to take on board. All that's left to do is slip on some sustainable swimwear...
Is swimming good exercise?
Swimming is a great exercise option that comes with a range of benefits for your health, as our experts explain. The key benefits of swimming are:
- Full-body workout
- Strengthens muscles
- Low-impact exercise
- Boosts heart health
- Increases flexibility
- Improves bone health
- Aids mental wellbeing
“Swimming is one of the most beneficial exercises for people of all ages because it provides a workout for your whole body,” says Sonia Khan, senior pharmacist at Medicine Direct. “While swimming, your arms, legs, feet and hands are all needed to stay afloat and move around. For this reason, it makes for a gentle yet comprehensive form of exercise.” She adds that for this reason, it is a great sleep aid, explaining, "You are more likely to feel tired when it comes to bedtime because you've worked your whole body."
“The resistance of the water as you move helps strengthen and tone your muscles,” explains Phil Evans, lead physiotherapist at Urban Body, who has worked with Loughborough University, Leicestershire County Cricket Club, and Team GB athletes. “As you push and pull yourself through the water, your arms and legs are combating water resistance all the time, forcing both major and minor muscles to flex, tone and strengthen.”
“Swimming is a low-impact and non-weight-bearing exercise, meaning it doesn’t put pressure on the spine, knees or hips,” notes Evans. “In fact, it’s ideal for people who suffer from conditions like arthritis, since the buoyancy of the water helps support some of your body weight. This reduces strain on joints.” Khan adds, “You can swim even if you have injuries or a disability, which can often stop you from performing other types of exercise." But make sure you recover right too, ensuring you get all the types of rest you need.
Boosts heart health
“By putting your heart and lungs to work, swimming provides a great boost to your cardiovascular system,” says Giulia Guerrini, lead pharmacist at Medino. “Research has shown that swimmers have half the risk of death compared to non-active people.” Evans agrees, explaining, "As you swim your heart and breathing rate increase, allowing your body to get the required amount of oxygen and giving your heart a workout as it pumps more blood around your body." He adds that like other forms of aerobic exercise—such as Nordic walking—swimming reduces blood pressure and helps to raise good cholesterol levels, further reducing the risk of cardiovascular conditions.
It's not just activities like yoga for beginners that will help improve flexibility. “Swimming is great for this too,” points out Evans. “The buoyancy of the water will reduce the amount of stress on your joints, making it easier for you to stretch through a full range of motion, and doing this regularly works to keep joints supple, which is an important factor for older adults’ health and well-being.”
Improves bone health
You may know that as women get older, their bone health begins to suffer—leaving them at increased risk of osteoporosis. “After menopause, and even beforehand, bone thinning takes place due to a lack of estrogen," explains Dr Verity Biggs, GP at H3 Health. "By regularly exercising you can reduce this impact."
Aids mental wellbeing
“Among several mental health benefits, swimming is known to decrease anxiety, depression and stress while also improving mood,” says Guerrini. “It has similarly been linked to slowing cognitive decline and dementia.” Evans adds, “Swimming releases feel-good endorphins which will help promote a positive daily outlook.” These best meditation apps could be beneficial as well.
Can swimming help weight loss too?
As we’ve seen, there are so many important benefits to swimming other than fat burning—but it can also help you achieve that goal if you are looking to reach a healthy weight in a sustainable way, and are after an alternative to walking for weight loss. “Swimming for just one hour helps to burn off several hundred calories,” says Khan.
Lucy Arnold, personal trainer and founder of Lucy Locket Loves, adds, “Getting into better exercise habits, like swimming, creates better lifestyle habits which—in turn—can help with weight loss and maintaining it.” She notes that, since it is low impact and can be done at your own pace, you are less likely to get injured and can keep on training, which will also help you stay active and reach your goals.
The main thing is that you make swimming a regular part of your exercise routine. “Like with other forms of exercise, as long as you perform it consistently, combine it with balanced nutrition, and are in a calorie deficit, then your weight loss will be sustainable and healthy,” says Sarah Campus, personal trainer and founder of LDN Mums Fitness. "Aim to swim four to five days a week, and mix up your routine to keep your body guessing—doing cardio and strength training on land too." Need some inspiration for the latter? Our pick of the best at-home workouts should help.
What is the best way to get into swimming?
“I advise patients wanting to start swimming as a form of exercise to begin gently and slowly build up,” suggests Dr Biggs. “Pick a stroke style that you feel most comfortable with and start there, and then gradually increase speed and stamina as well as the number of lengths and time you swim for.”
- Decide on a location—“Regular indoor swimming is warmer, and a comfortable surrounding in which to socialize with friends as you exercise,” says Dr Biggs. “Wild swimming has also become very popular in the last couple of years and as long as it is done safely—remember to never swim alone—and you enjoy it then this is equally as good. What's more, you’ll burn more calories since your body uses more energy to keep warm as well as exercising, and it is also known to boost your immune system." (If this is a health concern for you, our guide to the best immunity supplements could help, too).
- Safety is important—“Don’t be afraid to have swimming lessons, even as an adult— often a refresher is useful,” continues Dr Biggs. “You can also stay in the shallow end or near the side, until you gain confidence.” Before getting into the water, get prepared. “Be sure to warm up and stretch your muscles and joints, and have plenty of fluids on hand,” adds Campus. “Don't overdo it if you're just starting out, and see your doctor first if you haven't exercised in a long time.”
- Give yourself some support—“I find going with a friend often helps when you’re beginning,” recommends Penny Weston, a fitness and nutrition expert (welcometomade.com). “If you’re feeling self-conscious about being seen in a swimming costume, remember that most people are so preoccupied with themselves and their own bodies that they won’t notice what you look like.”
Boost your technique—avoid these common mistakes
Remember to breathe
“One of the most common pitfalls when swimming is holding your breath—you end up not being able to fuel your body with enough oxygen and therefore aren't able to swim very far, fast, or for long,” says Arnold. “Start by practicing on land, breathing in and out of your nose, and humming on the exhale. You can try this in the pool before you even start to swim—put your face in the water and breathe out of your nose, then come up and breathe in.” After some extra guidance? Here's our guide to how to breathe better.
Use all of your body
“Another common mistake is relying too much on your upper body, which then results in a very tired upper body leaving you unable to swim as fast,” explains Arnold. “You should use your arms for pulling your body through the water, your core to rotate in the water, and your legs for the kick which will propel you forward.”
“Breaststroke is typically the easiest for beginners to learn,” says Arnold. “One of the key reasons for this is that it allows you to keep your head above water at all times.” But make sure you switch it up with other types of stroke, like freestyle and back crawl. Evans notes, “Be careful how much breaststroke you perform as the repetitive stress of this stroke during the whip-like motion can cause medial knee pain."
Perfect your freestyle
Also known as front crawl, this stroke is suitable during pregnancy as keeps hips in a neutral position. “Spread your fingers slightly to pull yourself along,” explains Campus. “Kick like a champion—use your legs to provide a strong foundation for your stroke.” She adds that a common mistake is using short arm lengths and you should also maintain a neutral head position, and turn it to the side—not the front—to inhale and exhale in the water.
w&h thanks Sonia Khan, senior pharmacist at Medicine Direct, Phil Evans, lead physiotherapist at Urban Body, Giulia Guerrini, lead pharmacist at Medino, Dr Verity Biggs, GP at H3 Healthcare, Lucy Arnold, personal trainer and founder of Lucy Locket Loves, Sarah Campus, personal trainer and founder of LDN Mums Fitness and Penny Weston, a fitness and nutrition expert at welcometomade.com, for their time and expertise.
Lauren is a freelance writer and editor with more than six years of digital and magazine experience. Most recently, she was the Acting Commissioning Editor of Women's Health—where she co-produced the Going For Goal podcast, which surpassed one million downloads. In addition to Womanandhome.com and sister site My Imperfect Life, she has also penned news and features for titles including The Telegraph, Stylist, Dazed, Grazia, The Sun's Fabulous, Yahoo Style UK and Get The Gloss.
While Lauren specializes in covering wellness topics—ranging from nutrition and fitness, to health conditions and mental wellbeing—she has written across a diverse range of lifestyle topics, including beauty and travel. Career highlights so far include: spending the day as a Playboy Bunny, luxury spa-hopping in Spain, interviewing Heidi Klum and joining an £18k-a-year London gym. Someone’s got to do it!
When she’s not typing away at her desk—or interviewing experts and case studies—Lauren winds down with yoga, a good podcast and great skincare (affordable of course —there’s little she doesn’t know about budget beauty). Things that bring her endless joy: oat milk lattes, long sunny walks and digital detoxes.
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