By Meredith Sheldon
After a long day at work, Dr. Wesley Smith ties up his suit, tightens his goggles and dives into the ocean for a swim.
For 25 years, he has practiced swimming in triathlons and on duty as an ocean lifeguard.
Swimming is his muse. Over time, this aerobic exercise has benefited his mental and physical health by relieving his stress and increasing his endurance.
Non-competitive or inexperienced swimmers can take the plunge and swim as a form of cardio or cross training. If you are bored of monotonous gym routines or are battling muscular or skeletal injuries, it is time to dive into a new fitness challenge—swimming.
For those who are afraid of the water or are new to swimming, here is the good news: no experience is necessary to receive the health benefits of aquatic training, says Kathe Briggs, an American College of Sports Medicine Exercise Specialist and former NCAA Division 1 swim coach.
“If you can’t swim all four strokes or even doggy paddle, you can still get in and use the water for your recommended 150 hours of physical activity per week without even putting your face in the water,” Briggs says.
What are the benefits?
Swimming is the fourth most popular physical activity, according to the ACSM. There are many ways to exercise in the water ranging from high intensity interval lap training to water running and treading, Briggs says.
You do not have to stop exercising while injured thanks to swimming. The pool is a safe place for muscle rehabilitation. If you are battling knee, joint, ankle or hip injuries, you can recover safely in the water and remain physically active.
“Swimming is the equalizer where exercise is concerned,” Briggs says.
Secondly, swimming works to decrease pain. People with back pain or spine injuries can relieve symptoms and unload in the water, she says.
When you are in the water, Briggs says you can move any and all of your joints without the impact of gravity since you are unweighted by 90 percent. Swimming helps to improve your range of motion.
Besides short-run recovery, this low-impact sport prevents our bodies from receiving exercise-related injuries in the long run, Briggs says. Land-based exercises, such as running, are high-impact and place a significant amount of pressure on your joints.
This aquatic workout is also great for cross-training.
Swimming can be added easily to a workout regime without the risks of muscle soreness and overtraining, says Dr. Smith, who is the Director of the Nutrition Masters Program and the Undergraduate Exercise Physiology Program Chair at the University of Miami..
You can also get a longer workout in the pool than on land. With swimming, you don’t feel the sweat and the exertion of motion against gravity that you do while running and performing other land exercises, Briggs says.
Other long-term health benefits of swimming are increased life expectancy.
A longitudinal study over 32 years found that those who swam regularly had a 50 percent lower death rate than runners, walkers and people who did not exercise. The study was conducted by Dr. Steven Blair, an exercise researcher at the University of South Carolina.
Besides all of the physical health benefits, swimming is also mentally enriching. Dr. Smith says it helps reduce his stress and increase his mood.
“Swimming helps maintain vitality,” he says. “I don’t feel any different now at age 44 than i felt when I was 20. If it weren’t for swimming and exercise that wouldn’t be the case.”
All of these health benefits sound great, but where do you start? Especially if you have no experience swimming, taking your first dive in the pool might be nerve-wracking.
For those who are new to the sport or are uncomfortable in the water, the best way to start is to take it slow and progress over time.
“A common mistake beginners make is that they try to hammer at the water and swim as fast as they can when they should first learn stroke drills and mechanics,” Dr. Smith says.
Dr. Smith recommends that those who are not avid exercisers should exercise in the water about two to three times a week and work on the basics. For people who are in solid physical shape, he suggests to focus 80 percent of their aquatic training on form and technique.
Starting swimming can be difficult without help. Briggs suggests seeking advice from a professional. Group swim lessons or water workouts are also great opportunities to receive proper guidance and to derive the most workout benefits.
Besides form and technique, another tip for beginner swimmers is to never swim alone. From a safety standpoint, Briggs recommends finding someone who will be accountable to help you and will motivate you to continue these exercise practices.
Just like any form of exercise, in order to see the long-term health benefits of swimming, it is important to maintain it and enjoy it.
“Swimming is exercise that allows you to be physically active for a lifetime,” Briggs says. “You can do it even if you are missing an appendage.”