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5 Health Benefits of Swimming & Water Exercise – How to Get Started

By Laura Williams

water exerciseAccording to SwimToday, 80% of parents never consider enrolling their kids in swim team after they’ve completed swim lessons. And yet swimming is one of the most amazing lifetime sports a person can get involved in, as people of all ages – from 4 to 94 – can take advantage of the incredible fitness benefits it imparts. Clearly not everyone is familiar with why swimming workouts are so fabulous and how to get started.

I spent 13 years of my professional life working in and around swimming pools. That included years of lifeguarding, teaching swim lessons, organizing fitness classes, managing facilities, and working with community members to expand programs and meet needs. I can personally attest to the life-changing health benefits of water exercise.

I saw 400-pound men in wheelchairs find mobility in the water. I saw young children find confidence and achievement by participating in swim team. I saw arthritis sufferers find relief by taking classes to maintain joint movement. I saw pregnant women ease back pain during deep water fitness classes. I saw middle-aged adults rediscover health by training for – and participating in – their first triathlons.

Why You Should Take Your Workout to the Pool

The truth is, almost everyone can benefit with water exercise. Here are several reasons you should take your workout to the pool.

1. It Builds Strength

Take a moment to think about water. While it might be abundantly obvious that water is thicker than air, many people don’t stop to think about what that means when it comes to fitness. Essentially, every direction you move – every stroke, kick, twist, and turn – requires you to move against the water’s resistance.

To swim or to jog a mile in the water takes much longer than walking or jogging a mile on land. This is because swimming a mile is much more difficult due to the constant resistance the water provides. As you work against the resistance, your muscles develop and grow stronger, especially when you’re pushing yourself to improve.

2. It’s Easy on the Joints

Swimming and other aquatic exercises are incredibly easy on the joints. These low- to no-impact, non-weight-bearing activities make it possible for those who are overweight, pregnant, injured, or experiencing chronic joint pain to comfortably move in the pool. It’s these same factors that make aquatic exercise accessible to populations who might not be able to ride a bike, go for a jog, or lift weights.

And because swimming involves very little joint strain, it also carries a low risk of injury. While you might roll an ankle on a walk or pull a muscle during CrossFit, you’re unlikely to experience sports-related injuries when going for a swim – especially if you’re engaging in swimming for fitness, rather than pursuing it as a competitive sport.

3. It’s Good for Flexibility

Flexibility is one of the five components of fitness, and it’s one that’s often ignored. The thing about flexibility is that it becomes especially important as you age. This is because poor flexibility can limit range of motion and mobility, reducing balance and coordination, which can ultimately contribute to falls. Water exercise is an easy and effective way to enhance flexibility because of the unique environment that water provides.

Think about it: The buoyancy provided by water enables you to move in ways you might not be able to move on land. For instance, you might be able to perform a flip turn in the water, but few adults can actually perform a similar flip on land. Likewise, you can move into stretches – either standing in the shallow end, or suspended in the water while using a tool (such as a pool noodle) – that you might not be able to master on land. This makes it possible for even those with stiff muscles and joints to slowly improve their flexibility and regain full range of motion.

Just keep in mind that warmer water is better for enhancing flexibility because it helps to keep muscles pliable. Look for classes, such as water yoga or the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program, that take place in warm-water pools to maximize your experience.

4. It Torches Calories

It’s a myth that water exercise can’t lead to weight loss – water exercise is actually a calorie-torching activity. According to the MyFitnessPal calorie burn calculator, a 150-pound individual can expect to burn between 200 to 350 calories in 30 minutes of swimming, depending on intensity. Likewise, a 150-pound water jogger can burn 272 calories in 30 minutes – the exact same amount he or she could expect to burn while jogging a 12-minute mile pace on land.

The real beauty of aquatic exercise is that even though it burns calories at a rate similar to that of other aerobic activities, it often feels easier. This is due in part to the naturally cooling effect of water – you simply don’t feel as hot and sweaty as you do on land – and the fact that water exercise tends to be enjoyable. It’s easy to overlook how hard you’re working when you’re having a good time.

5. It’s Heart-Healthy

Swimming laps, water jogging, and water exercise are all aerobic activities. That means they get your heart pumping and your vascular system working in order to pump oxygenated blood to your working muscles. And anytime you perform sustained exercise lasting longer than 10 minutes, you’re engaging your cardiovascular system in a manner that can improve heart health.

Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death of men and women in America according to the CDC, making heart-healthy exercise a priority is incredibly important. Just be sure to get clearance from your doctor to engage in any type of exercise program, especially if you have known cardiovascular disease or risk factors, such as family history, high blood pressure, or type II diabetes.

water exercise

How to Get Started

There are lots of ways to get started with aquatic fitness. While swimming laps is typically the most obvious pool workout, not everyone likes the back-and-forth that it requires. Check out the following types of aquatic workouts to find one that’s a good fit for you.

Swimming Laps

Swimming laps is pretty straightforward: Travel the length of the swimming pool while performing steady movement of your arms and legs, typically using well-known strokes (front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, or butterfly). Individuals who aren’t strong swimmers, or who never learned to breathe properly during swimming, often find this type of workout to be uncomfortable and difficult. Exercise can be made more comfortable by switching frequently between strokes and incorporating tools (such as pull buoys, flippers, and kickboards) to give you time to catch your breath and rest over-worked muscle groups.

The cost of swimming laps is typically just the cost of pool entry. This varies by location and facility, but is generally less than $10 per visit (it’s only $2.50 at my local pool). Most facilities also provide memberships or seasonal passes, lowering the total cost of entry if you use the facility often. And because most pools provide access to amenities such as flippers and kickboards, you probably don’t need to spend money on anything else.

Water Jogging or Running

Water jogging or running is exactly what it sounds like: running or jogging through the water. This can be done in shallow or deep water, so it’s possible to engage in the activity regardless of swimming ability. The interesting thing about jogging in the water is that it very closely mimics the benefits of jogging on land and is performed in a similar fashion, so individuals who cross-train by jogging in the water can actually avoid some of the overuse injuries experienced through land-based training. In fact, water jogging is a great way for competitive runners rehabbing from an injury or going into their third trimester of pregnancy to continue their sport without the pounding impact of a land-based workout.

All you have to do is decide whether you want to jog in shallow water or in deep water. Shallow water jogging is performed exactly like jogging on land, but with the resistance of water pushing against your body as you try to move forward. Start in water that’s roughly belly button-to-shoulder deep, and start to jog. You may need to lean forward a little more than you would on land, really pushing off the balls of your feet as you drive the opposite knee forward. The goal is to move your arms and legs at the same rate as you would on land, understanding that this will be inherently harder in the water because of the water’s resistance.

If you choose to jog in deep water (a great option for those with lower-extremity injuries, low back pain, or pregnancy), you may want to strap a flotation belt around your torso to help keep you afloat. These belts are designed for deep water exercise, and if your facility doesn’t provide them for you, you can purchase an AquaJogger belt for about $35.

Deep water jogging is also performed just like land-based jogging, but with an added challenge: In deep water, you don’t have the bottom of the pool to push off of to help drive you forward. Because I’ve always been a strong swimmer with a powerful leg action, I’ve never needed to adjust my running motion to account for this difference, but many deep water joggers use more of a “scissor-like” leg action to help with forward motion. Likewise, some deep water joggers don’t bend their elbows at 90-degree in a runner-like form, but leave their arms straight, swinging them forward-and-backward in more of a walking form.

Either way, it’s important to tip forward slightly from the hip to start the forward momentum, but to remember that you’re not actually swimming, you’re “running,” so do your best to keep your torso straight and your shoulders and head out of the water. And just like shallow water jogging, try to keep your arms and legs moving at the same pace as you’d be moving them if you were running on land.

Water Exercise Classes

Water exercise classes are typically offered in two different formats: deep-water exercise, and shallow-water exercise. Most deep water exercise classes incorporate the use of a flotation belt, so being a strong swimmer isn’t necessarily required, although it does help when it comes to feeling comfortable in the water.

The types of water exercise classes offered vary widely by facility. It’s typical for them to be offered in beginner, intermediate, advanced, and therapy levels. Many classes incorporate the use of tools, such as noodles, water weights, and gloves, to increase the resistance of each movement and improve muscular strength. These tools are typically provided by the facility, so there’s no additional cost to the attendee – just be sure to ask the facility before you attend.

While most classes focus on cardiovascular health, some classes focus specifically on flexibility, including aquatic yoga and aquatic t’ai chi. Call around to pools in your area to find out what they offer and what their pricing structure for classes is. Many fitness centers and public pools include the cost of classes in their membership rates, so it may just be a matter of showing up when the class is offered.

That said, some specialty classes, such as aquatic t’ai chi or aquatic cycling (where a special underwater group exercise bike is provided for participants), may come at an additional cost. I’ve seen these classes offered for up to $30 a class.

To find classes in your area, contact your city’s recreation center, your community pool, local fitness centers, and private health clubs.

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Final Word

Even if you don’t like swimming laps (or you’re not a strong swimmer), there are many ways to take advantage of aquatic fitness. Today’s community recreation centers, city pools, and private gyms offer lots of aquatic experiences – from water jogging to Aqua Zumba – that impart many of the same health benefits as a traditional lap routine. Give several a try to find out if there’s a workout you enjoy.

Do you swim laps or workout at a pool to stay healthy? What’s your favorite water workout?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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