Angela Lane has great memories of swimming during her childhood, spending endless summer days at the pool to find refuge from the Arkansas heat. She became a lifeguard as a teen, and she swam for fitness during high school and college.
Two years ago, things were different. At age 31, Lane weighed 200 pounds. She hadn’t been in a pool for more than 10 years.
She began a weight loss program, and started to think about exercising again.
“People would tell me, ‘You need to run or walk,’ but when I tried that, my ankles and knees hurt,” she says. “When I finally realized I needed to exercise, I said, ‘OK, what do I like?’ because if you like it, you’re going to do it more.”
She took to the pool. Her first goal was completing just one lap.
“Each week, I would get stronger and stronger,” says Lane. “Swimming really began to strengthen, condition, and tone my body without those harsh, jarring effects of some of those other exercise programs.”
Lane, a makeup artist in Little Rock, Ark., didn’t realize how much swimming was helping her until she took a business trip: “I was running through the airport with my carry-on bag and I started to think, ‘Wow, this is easier.'”
Easy on the Body
Exercise physiologist Robert A. Robergs says swimming is a good fitness choice for just about everyone, especially those who have physical limitations or who find other forms of exercise painful.
“It is a good, whole-body exercise that has low impact for people with arthritis, musculoskeletal, or weight limitations,” says Robergs, director of the exercise physiology laboratories at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Water’s buoyancy accommodates the unfit as well as the fit. Water cushions stiff joints or fragile bones that might be injured by the impact of land exercises. When immersed to the waist, your body bears just 50% of its weight; immersed to the chest, it’s 25%-35%; and to the neck, 10%.
Athletes use water to rehabilitate after injury or to cross-train. People with arthritis or other disabilities use water to improve fitness and range of motion and to relieve pain and stiffness.
“Swimming is also desirable for people with exercise-induced asthma,” says Robergs, “as the warm, humid air [around the pool] causes less irritation to the airways.”
Not only is swimming easy on the body, it’s a great way to get fit, according to Tay Stratton, head swim coach at the Little Rock Athletic Club.
Swimming recruits all the major muscle groups, including the shoulders, back, abdominals, legs, hips, and glutes, she says. And because water affords 12 times the resistance as air in every direction, it really helps to build strength, she says.
“It’s cardiovascular and strengthening at the same time, and not many workouts have that,” says Stratton.
But can swimming help you lose weight?
There are some questions about how efficiently swimming burns calories, says Robergs.
“Research done on swimming showed that weight loss seemed more difficult,” he says. “The theory is that the water submersion initiates a complex [nerve pathway] to lower metabolic rate.” And with a lower metabolic rate, the body uses fewer calories to maintain normal function.
While Robergs says these explanations need further research, Stratton says swimming can be a boon for weight loss — if you follow the same principles as with any other exercise, and challenge yourself.
For weight loss, Stratton recommends interval training, in which you push yourself hard for short spurts, and then drop back to a less-intense level of exercise.
“If you don’t do interval training, it’s just as if you’re doing a slow walk,” Stratton says.
Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist for USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo., has many success stories of obese clients who lost weight after they began working out in the water.
One man was 500 pounds, had rheumatoid arthritis, and had to quit work because he couldn’t get around.
“He went from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches to a cane to nothing by working out in the water,” says Nelson. “He became one of my employees and lost over 250 pounds.”
How to Get Started
If you’re ready to get started, experts recommend getting a swim coach or joining a masters swimming group in your area. Don’t be intimidated by the name; ‘masters’ just means over age 20.
Masters swimming accommodates all levels, from beginners to advanced, and you don’t have to want to compete to join. This type of group supports recreational swimming for fitness, and is a great way to learn technique — which is everything in swimming.
Getting the rhythm of the strokes and the breath can be overwhelming at first. Coaches break it down and take you there slowly, practicing one part at a time.
If you’re a beginner, start slowly. Try to swim for 10 minutes. Build up to a 30-minute workout, three to five times a week. Include a warm-up and a cool-down, and, in the middle, challenge yourself by working on endurance, stroke efficiency, or speed.
“I really encourage [new swimmers] not to get frustrated,” says Stratton. “Swimming takes a long time. We’re land-based; the water feels so foreign to us.”
There’s more than one way to tackle swimming. Before you feel comfortable putting your face in the water, you can practice drills with a kickboard, or even walk the length of the pool.
In fact, Nelson recommends that beginners start with vertical strength-training exercises in the pool. That means things like walking or jogging a length of the pool in waist-deep water, or doing some strengthening by sinking in up to the neck.
“Instead of swimming with improper technique,” says Nelson, “we want to get them vertical to strengthen their core before they put their face in the water.”
A comfortable swimsuit and a pair of goggles are all you need to start, say experts. You can even wait on the goggles if you’re not ready to put your face in the water yet.
The Right Choice
When Lane started swimming regularly two years ago, she didn’t feel good doing any other exercise. But after losing 20 pounds, and improving her strength and cardiovascular fitness, she was able to do fitness walking and, eventually, to run. She competed in her first triathlon this year.
For Lane, swimming was the right choice.
“It’s a good way to begin to get back into fitness without having such trauma in the body. And it’s also very relaxing,” she says.
“Once you get your earplugs in and your swim cap on and you begin to swim, it’s just you and the water. There’s no cell phone, everything else just kind of fades.”