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So You Swim, Bike & Run? Swimming is the Best One for your Body

Andrei Lozovik

Many types of exercises can be fun and rewarding. However, swimming has many unique advantages of which you might not be aware.

Free Your Bones and Muscles

First, the fact that you’re submerged in water means your bones and muscles are somewhat unshackled from the constraints of gravity, says Hirofumi Tanaka, a professor of kinesiology and director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Lab at the University of Texas.

This makes swimming the ideal exercise for people with osteoarthritis, for whom weight-bearing exercise can be excruciatingly painful. According to Tanaka’s research of people with the condition, swimming decreases arterial stiffness, a risk factor for heart trouble. More of his research has linked swim training with lower blood pressure among people with hypertension. The coolness and buoyancy of water are also appealing to people who are overweight or obese, for whom load-bearing aerobic exercises like running may be too hot or uncomfortable, Tanaka says.

You’re Working Harder Than You Think

While swimming laps might not feel like you’re doing much, that simply isn’t so. Water is denser than air, so moving through H2O puts more external pressure on your limbs than out-of-water training, studies have shown. The pressure is also uniformly distributed, so it doesn’t collect in your knees, hips or the other places that bear most of the burden when you exercise with gravity sitting on your shoulders.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

How you breathe during a swimming workout is much different than you normally would during typical cardio workouts. While running or riding a bike, your breath tends to be shallow and you exhale forcefully. Swimming is basically the opposite: You breathe in quickly and deeply, and then let the air trickle out. Because your head is underwater when you swim, these breathing adjustments are vital, and they may improve the strength of your respiratory muscles. This kind of breathing keeps the lung alveoli—the millions of little balloon-like structures that inflate and deflate as you breathe—from collapsing and sticking together.

Front and Back Benefits

Think about the bodies of Olympic swimmers...pretty impressive, right? Swimming fires up more of your body’s major muscle groups than other forms of cardio exercise. Unlike running or biking, where you mostly use your legs, swimming is a full-body effort. Not only does swimming engage your legs, but it also recruits your upper body and core—especially your lats and triceps, which can be hard to target with other cardio exercises.

Swimming can help your back not only look great but feel great too. Many of us spend hours each day hunched over a desk or steering wheel. Working out in a horizontal pose—as opposed to the upright position your body assumes during other forms of aerobic exercise—may be an ideal way to counteract this. There’s no hard impact on your back like there is with running, and instead of being bent forward as you would be on a bike, your back tends to be arched slightly in the opposite direction. Other benefits like improved posture and prevention of daily pain and back injuries can also be positive side effects of this horizontal body positioning.

The exercise is also linked to many of the same life-extending, heart-saving, mood-lifting benefits associated with other forms of aerobic exercise. And it’s fun, which matters. Splashing around may bring back fond childhood memories of summers spent in pools or trips to the lake. Once people work swimming into their normal routine, they tend to get hooked. About half of people who try a new on-land exercise program give up within a few months. Because swimming is fun, those who try it out as a part of an exercise regime are more likely to stick with it.

Get Hooked, Stay Hooked

If you’re sold on swimming, you should start slowly. It’s important to not do too much too early and instead focus on proper technique. Consider enlisting the help of an instructor if you didn’t have any formal coaching as a kid. If you’re not used to swimming, it can be hard to relax in the water. Being nervous and tight may limit the sport’s benefits. Start off with 30-minute sessions three times a week, and don’t forget to take frequent breaks. Just like running or biking, you’ll want to ease into it before increasing duration and frequency. Luckily, swimming is an exercise that can be enjoyed from a very young age until way past retirement, so take your time and see where it takes you!

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