“As a fitness tool, swimming hits all the marks,” says David Clawson, MD. “It’s a great aerobic workout. It’ll increase your cardiac output and lowers your resting heart rate — and your blood pressure. Because of the big breathing component to swimming, it’s wonderful for developing your pulmonary capacity. Not just the metabolic respiratory aspect of exercise, but actually increasing your lung volumes and strengthening your diaphragm.”
Dr. Clawson, 58 — who swims for an hour three to four times a week — estimates that, depending on how strenuous the workout, one can burn up to 500 calories in 60 minutes. “It helps keep your weight under control, helps with blood sugar control and helps with blood fat (cholesterol) control. It’s also very helpful for developing flexibility. It keeps your muscles long, because as you swim, you reach and stretch.”
“When you swim, you pull the weight of the water, and your legs and arms move simultaneously,” says Karen Creasey, Director, Desert Aquatic Center. A personal trainer and aquatic training specialist who helped develop the facility and its pool management prior to its opening in June 2011, she sees the strength-building benefits of aquatic exercise as more efficient than that of land-based workouts. “When you’re in a gym and you want to do both a bicep and a tricep curl, you have to actually change the exercise. In the water, you don’t, because of the drag properties. It’s a great cross-training tool.”
“There’s another piece of swimming, which is the mind, body, spirit connection that we forget is part of overall fitness,” adds Dr. Clawson. “There’s something about swimming where you disconnect from the world around you. You’re in the water. It’s very soothing, very relaxing. You get a lot of the breath work that you hear about in meditation or yoga. It’s very meditative to be in rhythm in the water, where even sound is partially muffled. And vision, because you’re wearing goggles, is a little bit obscured. I don’t want to say it’s sensory deprivation, but you’re in a different state of mind than you are in your normal life.”
When to not go in the water
According to Dr. Clawson, because aquatic exercise is not weight-bearing, individuals seeking to improve bone density need to participate in weight-bearing exercise (for example, weight training, walking, jogging, tennis). “Anybody who is at risk for an abrupt change in their level of consciousness, such as seizures or narcolepsy, is at risk in a pool,” he adds. “It also isn’t ideal for someone who is immunologically-impaired — somebody going through chemotherapy, for instance — to swim in a public pool. If you have open wounds, you can’t go. You must also be continent of bowel and bladder. Some people might have cardiopulmonary issues that make swimming unwise.”
While Dr. Clawson stresses that individuals should always see a physician prior to starting a new exercise program, he maintains that even those who never learned to swim can benefit from aquatics. There are DVDs, books, classes, and coaches. “It’s really hard to get hurt swimming,” he concludes. “There are people available who can get you off to a successful start.
Dr. Clawson’s Swim Fitness Guide
The benefits of swimming
Musculoskeletal: swimming helps with strength, flexibility, posture, and core. However, bone density improvement is limited.
Good for: swimming is good for arthritis, contractures, posture, joint pain, back pain, post fracture, post joint replacement, and asymmetries.
Neurologic: swimming helps improve coordination, balance, and strength. It can also help decrease the risk for falling.
Good for: swimming helps with recovery from stroke, brain injury, dementia, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, neuropathy, and asymmetries.
Cardiovascular/Pulmonary: aim for 150 minutes/week: swimming improves heart strength, respiratory muscle strength, lung capacity, aerobic fitness, lowering heart rate, and lowering blood pressure.
Good for: swimming is good for people with heart disease, pulmonary disease (moist air can be beneficial for some people), and edema (hydrostatic pressure, elevation, muscle contraction, increased venous and lymphatic return).
Endocrinology: swimming is a good exercise for obesity (burn up to 500 kilocalcories/hour) and diabetes mellitus.
Good for: swimming is good for the brain, heart, blood vessels, kidney, nerves, and for improving blood fats.
Immunology: swimming can boost the immune system to help prevent infection; it may also help prevent cancer.
Mind/Body/Spirit: swimming is soothing, relaxing, and meditative; it benefits breath work; it is a retreat from daily distractions; it increases feel-good and anabolic chemicals; and it lowers stress and catabolic chemicals.