Swim for Health

Splashing in the pool on a hot, summer day is a perfect way to cool off, and an even better way to get in some aerobic exercise. The water tends to be kinder to your joints and takes the weight off, helping you exercise with a lower chance of strain or injury.

"It's simply good for fitness," says Robert McMurray, PhD, FACSM, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "It develops muscular endurance and there is some data out there to suggest that it will reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, too."

Swimming isn't for everyone, like people who have shoulder injuries or osteoporosis. Even for a healthy and in-shape person it can be a tough fitness routine to stick with. Additionally, being sure that you are getting an adequate amount of exercise while doing laps requires some careful counting and adequate timing. But there are strategies that can help you become a swimming success story.

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Making Waves
Those who are overweight, pregnant or suffer from back pain may enjoy swimming since, in water, you are about one-tenth of your weight on land. The water increases range of motion for those with arthritis or stiff joints as well, because there is less weight to lift when raising an arm or leg. Additionally, the humidity that surrounds most pools, especially those indoors, makes breathing easier for people with asthma or other serious lung conditions.

"Water adds a lot of dimensions that are extremely helpful," says Dr. Lesley White, an exercise physiologist at the University of Florida.

With all its benefits, swimming has one major drawback; it requires one of the biggest pieces of equipment needed for any exercise—a pool. Finding a club or a community pool that is convenient, both in terms of location and open swim times, can be a challenge.

Additionally, even though swimming is kind to your joints, it doesn't place any stress on your bones. Weight-bearing exercise is essential for maintaining bone mass and building strong bones. This is especially important for people with osteoporosis. You should supplement your swim with some other activities, such as walking, running or lifting weights.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
If you plan to start a swimming routine, McMurray recommends you purchase a pair of goggles and have access to a paddleboard or kickboard and a pull buoy (available at most pools). Assuming that you are an average swimmer, interval training three days a week is recommended for overall physical fitness improvement. Try swimming a lap, then resting for 30 seconds. If that's too easy, swim for 5 minutes and rest for one, working up to a total of 30 minutes of active swimming.

"If your total time swimming is 20 to 30 minutes, you'll get as much benefit as if you ran for 20 to 30 minutes, and more than if you walked for 20 to 30 minutes," says McMurray. Swimming uses muscles in the entire body instead of just focusing on a particular section, as most traditional aerobic activities do.

Use the paddleboard or kickboard to focus just on your legs. For an upper body workout use a pull buoy to focus on your arm and back muscles. A pull buoy is a rigid piece of foam that is place in between your legs to prevent kicking. Hand paddles can also be used, but they are only recommended for advance swimmers. Improper use can lead to injury. And be sure to vary your stroke. By alternating between the backstroke, freestyle and breaststroke, you work your muscles in different ways and lower your chance of injury from repetitive strain on a joint. Also, you won't become bored as quickly with your workouts.

"People who swim multiple strokes have less shoulder injury than those who just swim freestyle or just swim backstroke," says McMurray. Stretching, especially your arms and your back, beforehand is also beneficial and will help avoid cramping and getting hurt. Also, overdoing it can lead to injury, so if you are new to the sport try to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Swimming too long per workout
  • Swimming too often during the week
  • Not having appropriate recovery time after workout
  • Incorrect or poor form

Staying Afloat
While the old myth goes that you should wait two hours after swimming before hopping in the pool, apparently no one ever had such a policy against eating after swimming. And many find that their stomach begins to rumble soon after a session in the pool. While researchers aren't sure what causes these hunger pains, it has been shown that swimming is not as effective for weight loss as other forms of aerobic exercise.

"Many people who do a lot of exercise have recognized that when they swim, they're not able to lose as much weight as when they run or when they ride," says White.

In a recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, White found that exercising in cold water may cause you to eat more afterward than a warm-water workout does.

In the study, two groups of students rode a stationary bike underwater for 45 minutes. One group was in 68 degree Fahrenheit water, while the other group rode in 91 degree Fahrenheit water. After the exercise, both groups were led to a waiting room for one hour, with food available. After the session, those who exercised in cold water ate an average of 877 calories afterwards, while those who exercised in the warm water only ate 608 calories. Considering that both groups only burned a little over 500 calories exercising, those extra bites can make a big difference.

"When people are exposed to different temperatures, there are a lot of things that change, including blood-flow characteristics, the hormones that are secreted during exercise and the body temperature during and after exercise," says White, "Collectively, some of these changes may certainly have an effect on appetite."

No matter what triggers your hunger after swimming, if you are trying to swim for weight loss, it can't hurt to avoid snacking afterward. Satisfy your cravings with a small amount of protein or fiber-rich food, which will make you feel full without loading up on calories.

Pulling Ahead
Few things can get more boring than staring at the bottom of a pool three days a week, so vary your routine. Many pool clubs offer classes to help add a little variety to your routine, ranging from aqua aerobics to water yoga to water running. Splashing around with other exercisers and a motivating instructor may be just what you need to keep your water workout in high gear. Need even more help? Swim with a friend who will motivate you to jump in even when you least feel like it.

Before you dive in head-first, it's a good idea to get your strokes assessed by a lifeguard or certified swim instructor. With the right form, you shouldn't be completely winded after one lap across the pool, and you reduce your risk of getting injured.

Most importantly, don't judge your progress by the others around you. It is easy to become disappointed when you've been swimming for weeks and everyone else is still zipping past. Keep in mind that everyone's body is shaped differently; some are simply better-suited for faster swimming. Track your personal progress by how long you can swim without stopping, how many laps you can complete in a given time or simply by how good you feel after a few weeks. Soon enough, you'll be a fitness stroke ahead of the pack.

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