Swimming has been called the perfect exercise. After all, you can get all of the benefits of an aerobic workout without any damaging impact on joints, and it can be done by both the very old and the very young. It is utilized by athletes to stay strong and keep fit when recovering from injury, and there is no fancy equipment needed—just you and the deep blue. However, swimming has many more benefits that those obvious advantages seen on the surface; its improvements to overall health go much deeper. So, let’s take a big breath, and dive in!
Benefits of Swimming: It Counts as Both Cardio and Strength Training
In swimming, if you aren’t moving constantly, you’re sinking. (Forced cardio!) Plus, water is about 800 times denser than air, says swimming and triathlon coach Earl Walton, owner of Tailwind Endurance in New York City, so your muscles are under constant resistance. Finally, no more trying to decide if today is going to be a strength or cardio day. (We suggest this pool workout for every skill level.)
Benefits of Swimming: It’s Easy on the Impact
Yes, the low impact means swimming is a great workout for injured athletes, who need to take it easy on their joints. But it may also mean more results: “You can swim at higher intensities on a regular basis without feeling wear and tear on your body,” Walton says. You could have a super-hard workout one day and still be in the pool the next, he says. Bonus: Research in the International Journal of Sports Medicine shows swimming is better than straight-up rest for exercise recovery, for when you want to take it easy.
Benefits of Swimming: It’s Great for Your Lungs
When your face is under water, oxygen is at a premium. In turn, your body adapts to use oxygen more efficiently, Walton says. Plus, it learns to take in more fresh air with every breath, and expel more carbon dioxide with every exhalation. A study in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology even found that swimmers had better tidal volume (the amount of air that moves in and out of the lungs during relaxed breathing) compared to runners. This results in lower resting heart rates, lower blood pressure, and, as you’ll see next, better running performance.
Benefits of Swimming: It Makes You a Better Runner
By increasing your ability to take in and effectively use oxygen, swimming increases your endurance capacity like crazy, Walton says. That’s great news if you’re hoping to complete your first half-marathon this year. It also means you can run faster mile after mile without getting winded. In a 2013 Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports study, swimmers who followed a controlled breathing technique (taking two breaths per pool length) improved their running economy by 6 percent after just 12 swim sessions. Air-fueled benefits aside, swimming trains your glutes and hamstrings, your core, and your shoulders—all of which are needed for improved running form and performances, Walton says.
Benefits of Swimming: Anyone Can Do It
Whether you’re recovering from an injury, pregnant (Walton has trained women in the pool on their due dates), a new mom, or an Ironman competitor, swimming can give you a great workout (um, as long as you—you know—know how to swim). You control the pace, intensity, and what you get out of every session, he says.
Benefits of Swimming: It Slashes Major Stress
While exercise-induced endorphins will do wonders for your stress levels, getting in the water for your workout may have its own special brand of mood-boosting benefits, Walton says. Being submerged in water dulls the amount of sensory information that bombards your body, helping to bring on feelings of calm, according to a study published in Pain Research & Management. Researchers found that regular flotation tank sessions were effective at relieving symptoms in patients suffering from conditions related to chronic stress. No wonder you love soaking in the bathtub.
Benefits of Swimming: It Turns Back the Clock
Regular swimmers are biologically 20 years younger than their driver’s licenses say they are, according to research from Indiana University. Scientists say that, even up until your 70th birthday, swimming affects blood pressure, cholesterol levels, cardiovascular performance, central nervous system health, cognitive functioning, muscle mass, and blood chemistry to be much more similar to that of your younger self. Who needs night cream?
Benefits of Swimming: It Hits Otherwise Underworked Muscles
“You don’t sit at your desk with your arms over your head,” Walton says. But when you’re in the pool, your arms are all over the place, meaning you need to work your often-neglected lats, deltoids, and traps, he says. And we know you aren’t targeting those when you’re on a bike or pounding the pavement. Plus, since so much of swimming is about staying balanced and level in the water (while both your arms and legs are moving, mind you), swimming helps you develop the deep stabilizing muscles in your core and lower back that women often miss.
Benefits of Swimming: It Makes You Smarter
Blood flow to the brain increased by up to 14 percent when men submerged themselves in water up to their hearts, according to a Journal of Physiology study. Researchers believe water’s pressure on the chest cavity may have something to do with it, and they are now studying whether water-based workouts improve blood flow to the brain better than do land-based ones. Stay tuned.
Benefits of Swimming: It Opens You Up to Awesome Experiences
Want to hop off the back of a boat? Swim across the San Francisco Bay? Go snorkeling in the Bahamas? Win every game of Marco Polo? Mastering swimming will help you do all that, Walton says. “Swimming’s a life skill. It opens the doors to a lot of fun stuff.”