Exercise and fitness

Senior Physiologist, Raj Kundhi (ANutr)

Health benefits of swimming

Exercise and Fitness

26 August 2020

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Swimming is a fantastic way to get active and enjoy the many health and wellness benefits associated with exercising, regardless of your age, ability or fitness levels.

As one of the original forms of low impact exercise, swimming really delivers when it comes to the payback compared to the amount of effort you put in and it’s a great non weight-bearing alternative to some other activities, such as running, that can cause damaging impact on your joints.

It even burns as much energy as a light jog – around 200-300 calories in just 20 minutes. Plus, if you’re not a fan of getting all hot and sweaty, swimming is the perfect way to work out without ending up a hot mess!

Senior physiologist Raj Kundi in our Proactive Health team explains why swimming is so good for your mind and body, and offers some top tips to get you started.

Why is swimming so good for us?

1. It can help us live longer!

In a study of 80,000 people, commissioned by Swim England, swimmers were found to have a 28% lower risk of early death and 41% lower risk of death due to heart disease and stroke.1  

Swimming also stacks up against other forms of exercise. Research shows that swimmers live longer than walkers and runners. And not just a little bit longer, either. In a study of more than 40,000 men ages 20 to 90 who were followed for 32 years, swimmers were 50 percent less likely to die during the study period than were walkers or runners.2

2. Swimming burns calories

Swimming is one of the most effective ways to burn calories. According to Swim England, 30 minutes exercising in the water is worth 45 minutes of the same activity on land. Swimming breaststroke for just 20 minutes burns 200-300 calories depending on intensity.3 This is equivalent to a jog and 4-5 times that of going for a walk. And because it’s gentler on your body you’re likely to be able to keep going for longer, so the overall benefit is greater. Check out Swimming.org’s calorie cruncher to find out just how much you could burn off.

3. Swimming makes getting active accessible for all

Swimming is suitable for people of all ages and abilities. Crucially, because water supports 90% of your bodyweight, it’s suitable for people living with pain, disability, injury or illnesses that make it difficult for them to get active in other ways. In short, when it comes to exercise, swimming is the ultimate leveller.

4. It improves cardiovascular fitness

Swimming is an effective and accessible way to improve your overall fitness and boost heart health and lung function. This means your body is able to use oxygen more efficiently, which can help you feel more energised and improve cognitive function. And because swimming requires you to control your breathing, it can be beneficial for asthma sufferers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).4

Note that there is evidence that long-term exposure to some chemicals found in swimming pools could increase asthma risk in swimmers.5 However a  large birth cohort study (the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children birth cohort), found that British children from birth to the age of 10 did not increase their asthma risk with swimming pool attendance, and improved their lung function with a decreased risk of asthma symptoms.6

5. It’s also a form of strength training

Not only does swimming provide a cardiovascular workout, it’s also a form of strength training, helping to keep your muscles healthy and improve bone strength as you move against the  natural resistance of the water. This makes it a great way to achieve government recommended physical activity levels – which now include targets for both aerobic and muscle building exercise – more easily because you’re doing both at once! Resistance exercise also improves balance, helping to prevent falls and fractures in older adults.

6. Swimming helps relieve joint pain 

When you’re in pain, working out may well be the last thing you want to do, but the fact is, exercise is a key factor in the relief of existing joint pain and the prevention of further deterioration and immobility in the future. Swimming is the ideal solution for a number of reasons.

First, as we’ve seen because the water supports your body weight, it allows you to tone up the supporting muscles and maintain the structure of the joints, without the discomfort of other forms of exercise.

Second, it provides a wide range of motion, increasing your ability to move your joints to the fullest degree, depending on the stroke or combination of strokes you choose. Front crawl or “free style” stroke allows you to stretch your arms above your head and rotate them, which is great for strengthening shoulders, and breast stroke can be therapeutic for knee pain resulting from injury, but what’s best for you will depend on your particular circumstances, so it’s important to check with your GP, physiotherapist or other suitably qualified clinician before embarking on a new exercise regime to ensure it’s safe.

7. It’s recommended during pregnancy

Working out while you’re pregnant offers lots of benefits for you and your baby. Swimming and aquatic exercise get top billing for pregnant women due to the decreased risk of falling and injury, as well as the buoyancy factor that really comes to the fore as you head towards your due date!

Not only can exercise help boost your mood, but swimming in particular can also reduce some of the more unpleasant pregnancy symptoms, such as nausea, sciatic pain and puffy ankles, and because baby’s floating along with you, it’s gentle on your loosening joints and ligaments (your body’s natural response to pregnancy hormones).

On top of all this, keeping active during pregnancy can promote a quicker postpartum recovery for you. It has also shown to help prevent gestational diabetes through improved glucose tolerance7, and increasing levels of physical activity before pregnancy and during early pregnancy may also reduce the risk of preeclampsia.8

8. Swimming is great for your mental health 

Regular swimming can lower stress levels, reduce anxiety and depression and improve your sleep patterns. Regular swimmers also report improvements in their self-esteem and confidence. And because swimming pools are also often within community buildings, whether you join a class or go solo it can be a great way to meet people and build relationships. This is born out in Swim England’s Value of Swimming report, which found swimmers to be more socially connected and engaged in their community compared to non-swimmers and less likely to be lonely; they are also more likely to spend time with friends and family, have more close friends and meet with friends regularly.9

Even simply being close to water is said to have a powerful effect on the brain. A 2011 study used a smartphone app called Mappiness to track the well-being levels of around 22,000 participants. The participants received random prompts to report how happy they were in that moment. According to the over 1.1 million responses that were sent in, not only were people happier when they were outside, they were 5.2 percent happier when near bodies of water.10

Tips on getting started

A variety of exercise classes, such as aquarobics or aqua Zumba, are available at most public pools, providing a varied and fun way to get in the pool, motivated by others and become part of a group.

Set yourself a goal and sign up for the annual swimathon – a charity event organised every year, with a variety of individual and team challenges that you can complete in a pool or open water venue of your choice. A great way to maintain motivation.

If you want to learn how to swim, improve your technique or fitness then have a search for local swimming classes. 1 to 1 tuition can be good option for some or have a look at a local swimming club, many are open to all levels.

Take your children and join in. Kids of all ages love playing in the pool making this a great way for you and your children to get active together.

Ask a friend if they would like to join you. Having a buddy to also take part can make it more enjoyable and you can continue to encourage each other to help maintain the habit.

What if I can’t swim?

If you’ve never got around to learning to swim, or if you have a phobia about open water, you can still benefit from the healing properties of hydrotherapy (aquatic physiotherapy) pools, sometimes prescribed for people suffering joint pain from arthritis. A water temperature of 34°C provides the therapeutic temperature for muscle relaxation, helping to ease pain and increase the range of muscle movement.

Or what about learning now? It’s never too late. Find out more from swimming.org.

Swimming outdoors

There’s a band of hardy folk in the UK who are convinced that swimming in the great outdoors is good for their health. You’ve probably seen them on TV at Brighton beach or the Serpentine in London on New Year’s Day, or even in our In my corner campaign, featuring the cold water swimming group, the Bluetits

The likes of Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale were advocates of cold water immersion and wildswimming.co.uk claim NASA studies from the 1980’s have shown that, over a 12-week period, repeated cold swimming leads to substantial bodily changes, including a fall in blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced fat disposition and improved insulin sensitivity.

Another big advantage of swimming in ponds, lakes and the sea is that it’s free. It also helps you reconnect with nature, which has been shown to have significant mental health benefits.  

Check out the Outdoor Swimming Society for details of where you can take a free dip in a pond or lake near you, and be sure to follow safety advice on outdoor – or wild swimming before you take the plunge.

(If you’re not convinced it’s worth the chill-factor, take a look at our article on cold water swimming - coming soon - to see how the benefits stack up!)

Swimming can be a fantastic way to stay active, providing similar health benefits to other more challenging forms of aerobic exercise and a few more on top. Its accessibility can also make a it a great choice for those who experience pain or find land-based exercise difficult. Get in touch with your local public swimming pool to find out how you can get involved. 

Further information

Swimming.org

Calorie crunch calculator

The Outdoor Swimming Society

Wildswimming

Mental health benefits of nature – AXA Health

Benefits and tips for exercising outdoors – AXA Health

Fitness and exercise hub - AXA Health

References

1. The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming report., Commissioned by Swim England’s Swimming and Health Commission, chaired by Professor Ian Cumming. Published June 2017.

2. Oja P, Kelly P, Pedisic Z, et al. Associations of specific types of sports and exercise with all-cause and cardiovascular-disease mortality: a cohort study of 80 306 British adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2017;51:812-817.

3. 8 benefits of swimming whatever your fitness level, Just swim – the website forswimming.org. (Accessed 12/8/2020).

4. Goodman M, Hays S. Asthma and swimming: a meta-analysis. J Asthma. 2008; 45: 639–47. [PubMed Abstract].

5. Weisel CP, Richardson SD, Nemery B, Aggazzotti G, Baraldi E, Blatchley ER3rd. Childhood asthma and environmental exposures at swimming pools: state of the science and research recommendations. Environ Health Perspect. 2009; 117: 500–7.

6. Font-Ribera L, Villanueva CM, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ, Zock JP, Kogevinas M, Henderson J. Swimming pool attendance, asthma, allergies, and lung function in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children cohort. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2011; 183: 582–8. [PubMed Abstract].

7. Aune D, Sen A, Henriksen T, Saugstad OD, Tonstad S. Physical activity and the risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Eur J Epidemiol. 2016 Oct;31(10):967-997. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27485519/.

8. Aune D1, Saugstad OD, Henriksen T, Tonstad S. Physical activity and the risk of preeclampsia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Epidemiology. 2014 May;25(3):331-43. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000036.

9. Value of swimming report. Commissioned by Swim England. Published November 2019.

10. George MacKerron and Susana Mourato. Happiness is greater in natural environments. Global Environmental Change. Volume 23; issue 5; October 2013; pages 992-1000.

11. Thriving with nature guide. Co-produced by WWF-UK and the Mental Health Foundation.

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