Article featured on verywellfit, Medically reviewed by Vanessa Nzeh, MD
Swimming is the fourth most popular form of exercise in the United States with over 27 million people participating over the age of six.
But there are also many barriers to participating in swimming. For instance, many people don’t learn to swim until later in life and some may experience discomfort or even fear of the water because it’s an unfamiliar environment.
Despite those hurdles, swimming provides a range of unique health benefits. Some people describe the sensation of immersing themselves in water as transformative or healing—and many enjoy the antigravity aspect of floating. There are also many documented health benefits associated with swimming that may inspire you to develop your own program of pool or open water exercise.
Health Benefits of Swimming
Participation in any physical activity—especially on a regular basis—can provide a wide range of health benefits. Regular exercise improves heart health, can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and may even reduce the risk of certain cancers. Exercise can also help you experience sharper thinking, learning, and judgment skills as you age, reduce your risk of depression, and can even promote better sleep. And just a single bout of exercise can provide immediate benefits, including reduced short-term feelings of anxiety.
The water environment and the fact that swimming involves the entire body give it a few unique advantages over other popular activities such as walking, running, or cycling.
Researchers have investigated the many ways participation in different types of swimming can affect the body. It is important to note, however, that just like any physical activity, there are significant differences between participation levels.
For example, lifelong competitive swimmers may experience different health benefits than those who swim for fun just a few times per month. These are some of the findings regarding the health benefits of swimming.
May Improve Body Composition
Swimming may help you to reduce body fat. A small study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that middle-aged women who swam regularly (60-minute sessions, three times per week for 12 weeks) showed an average drop in body fat of almost 3% while a control group (women who did not swim) showed no significant change. The swimmers also showed improved flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, and improved blood lipids.
However, another study examined changes in body composition in younger women who participated in a 12-week swim program. The study involved 34 women in their early 20s who were assigned to a swimming group or a non-swimming (sedentary) group. The swimming group participated in three 60-minute swim sessions per week for 12 weeks.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers found that the swimming group did experience a decrease in hip circumference but did not show significant changes to body composition as compared to the non-swimming group.
Lastly, in 2015 researchers evaluated the psychological, social, and physical health states of competitive swimmers engaged in long-term training. The study took place during four days of the French master championships in 2011. All swimmers selected for the event were invited to take part in the study, but only 490 participated.
May Lower Blood Pressure
A handful of studies have suggested that swimming may help lower blood pressure. One study involved women who had been diagnosed with mild hypertension. Researchers evaluated the effects of different swimming protocols on their blood pressure.
For the study, 62 women were randomly assigned to participate in high-intensity swimming (6–10 repetitions of 30-second all-out effort interspersed by 2 minutes of recovery), moderate swimming (one hour at moderate intensity), or a control group (no training or lifestyle changes).
After 15 weeks, researchers saw no changes in the control group. But both the high intensity and moderate swimming groups saw a decrease in systolic blood pressure. Both groups also decreased resting heart rate and body fat.
Several other studies have also found associations between swimming for exercise and lower blood pressure, especially in people with hypertension.
Reduced Risk of Musculoskeletal Injury
Exercise physiologists have noted that many popular sports and leisure activities require a certain level of technique and can involve impact with the ground leading to bruises, contusions, bone fractures, and more serious injuries. This can make the high risk of injury a point of weakness for many traditional sports and athletic activities.
However, in at least one published review, researchers point out that the probability of these types of injuries taking place in a low-impact swimming environment is minimized given the fact that weight is reduced through the use of the water’s buoyancy.
Fewer Respiratory Infections
If cold weather swimming appeals to you, participation in this extreme sport may help you to avoid upper respiratory tract infections and gain other health benefits.
Also called “winter swimming” or “ice swimming,” the sport involves swimming in cold to ice-cold water, most often in water below 5 °C (41 degrees Fahrenheit). Ice swimming used to be practiced only by extreme athletes, but has grown in popularity and now recreational swimmers compete regularly in both local and international events.
Scientists who published a 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reviewed studies related to ice swimming. They found that regular participation was associated with improvements in hematological and endocrine function (including decreased blood pressure, decreased triglycerides, and better insulin sensitivity), fewer upper respiratory tract infections, relief from mood disorders, and a general sense of well-being.
The researchers note, however, that only experienced swimmers in good health should participate in the sport. They state that “there is a risk of death in unfamiliar people, either due to the initial neurogenic cold shock response or due to a progressive decrease in swimming efficiency or hypothermia.”
If cold weather swimming sounds too extreme, you may still be able to gain better respiratory health with traditional pool swimming. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga compared the health effects of swimming to yoga.
Also, swimmers who participated in the 2015 study at the French Masters had greater peak expiratory flow values which suggested improved lung function.
Improved Health Perception
In 2015, a group of researchers investigated how different levels of participation in swimming might affect the health perception of middle-aged women. In their report, the study authors write that health perception is important in the way we manage our overall health because our behavior and choices are based on what we perceive about health in the first place.
They note that this relationship is important now more than ever as stress levels and fatigue are on the rise in many areas.
In the 2015 study involving participants of the French Masters, researchers measured the swimmer’s health perceptions. All of the female swimmers and the older age groups of male swimmers reported significantly higher values when it came to perceptions of vitality as compared to reference values. All of the swimmers who participated in that study also indicated significantly lower scores for the perception of bodily pain.
More Swimming Benefits
Many people who swim describe benefits that are not likely to be reported in clinical studies. In fact, according to U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS), Olympic swimmer Janet Evans once described swimming as the “ultimate all-in-one fitness package” because it improves your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
These benefits are not groundbreaking news to Marty Munson, a marathon swimmer who has swum around many islands including Key West and Manhattan. Munson is a USMS-certified swim coach, a certified Adult Learn to Swim instructor, and is a USA Triathlon Level 1 coach.
In her experience coaching both new and experienced swimmers, she has seen that the sport can be transformative. She outlines a few keys areas where change is likely to occur.
Elevated Sense of Achievement
“So many people come to the pool feeling that swimming is impossible for them,” says Munson. She adds that people are often sure they can’t learn to swim and see they see the water as “other” or “scary.” Part of this may be due to the fact that breathing in the water is different than breathing on land. But after learning a few basics, “new swimmers learn to luxuriate in it, work with it, and move through it,” she says “And they always amaze themselves when they do.”
For swimmers who have some limited experience in the water, there are also benefits. By refining basic skills, beginning-level swimmers can become proficient in the water. Simple tweaks can make the difference between struggling in the water and being frustrated, and gliding through it, and having fun.
When people who are just learning to swim finally get the hang of it, they gain so much more than technique, says Munson. “Swimming isn’t just about moving your arms, legs, and core, and getting to the other side of the pool.”
Instead, she describes a process that involves learning to rely on your own strength and abilities. “A big part of swimming is about learning to not fight with the water,” she says. “That kind of acceptance and surrender, used at the right moments, is a powerful skill both in the pool and out.”
Munson says this sense of self-reliance often carries over into other areas of life. “It’s an amazing feeling to know that you can jump into any body of water and manage it just fine,” she says.
Tips to Get Started
If the benefits of swimming have inspired you to dive in and start your own program, Munson has a few suggestions to help you get started.
Reframe Fears About Breathing
People are often afraid of thinking about the fact that you can’t breathe when your head is under the water. But Munson explains that you do breathe under water. You just breathe out when your face is in and breathe in when your head is above the surface. So, it’s not that you can’t breathe under the water. Instead, you breathe differently underwater.
“Many people think they should hold their breath under the water. When you do that, you’re actually creating a feeling of panic. But if you breathe out underwater and breathe in when you bring your head up or turn your head to the side you’ll be able to create the same in-out rhythm that you have on land.”
To adjust to the new breathing pattern Munson suggests that you practice blowing bubbles under the water before you try swimming. Put your face in the water and make a lot of big bubbles, breathe in when you come up. Practicing this pattern will help you to establish a comfortable breathing rhythm.
Many times people have bad previous experiences with water and a qualified instructor can help you get past them. And remember to be patient and kind to yourself as you learn to swim. “Don’t let people force you into deeper water than you’re ready for,” she says. “But also don’t convince yourself that you can’t make it to the next level.”
Learn to Tread Water
Treading water teaches you to keep your head above water regardless of water depth. “When people learn this skill, they get a huge jump in confidence in the water,” says Munson. It helps new swimmers pause and support themselves when they get uncomfortable. Lastly, Munson suggests that practice is important. You don’t have to spend a long time in the pool each session, just a few minutes on a regular basis can make a difference.
“I can always tell when swimmers in my weekly classes have been in the pool in between sessions,” she says. “It doesn’t take long to develop skills, but you do have to get in the pool to do it.”
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