Is swimming good exercise? In short, yes. It’s a low impact activity, but it still engages multiple muscle groups and provides a cardiovascular workout. It's a full-body activity too, which means that you'll be pumping your arms and legs but also engaging your core.
Need more convincing? We asked a clinical physiotherapist about the benefits of swimming (opens in new tab) and got an expert swim coach to offer advice on how to get started.
A full body exercise
Unlike running, swimming can put your whole body through a workout. And it’s not just muscles it’s working out, either.
“Swimming involves broad movements that move your body through different planes of motion, which challenge your joints, ligaments and muscles,” explains Leanne Simoncelli, Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist at the Institute of Sport Exercise and Health (ISEH), in partnership with HCA Healthcare UK.
“Depending on each stroke, swimming moves the body with full flexion and extension of the arms and legs whilst encouraging trunk rotation and rhythmical and reciprocal movements that see the arm and legs work in synergy.”
Leanne Simoncelli has an MSc in Sports Medicine and Exercise Health. She first qualified as a physiotherapist from the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 2004. Now, she works in both private practices and with professional sport teams, helping people recover from accidents and actively manage injuries.
Low impact movement
The buoyancy and support provided by water means that swimming is a low-impact activity and great for rehabilitation. It’s especially useful for people suffering from stiffness or arthritis. A study published in The Journal of Rheumatology (opens in new tab) documented that swimming can help to reduce the pain and stiffness caused by arthritis due to the lack of stress and strain on the body.
“The buoyancy of water supports tender muscles and joints, and allows the performance of gentle movements that are often not possible on land,” says Simoncell.
“When immersed at waist-depth, approximately 50% of your body weight is supported by the water and at neck level 90% support. The warm water and the hydrostatic pressure ( the weight of the water) is also very good at facilitating swelling reduction, stimulating lymphatic drainage and venous return (the rate of blood flow back to the heart), as well as helping arthritis sufferers to loosen off stiff joints.
Improved lung capacity
Recent studies – including this one published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (opens in new tab)– have shown that swimming could increase the volume of lung capacity and improve inspiratory muscle. In short, swimming could make you better at breathing.
“You’ll train your body to take deep controlled breaths [during swimming] which not only enhances lung capacity but also increases lung size, meaning the lungs become more efficient in how they process the air you breathe,” explains Simoncelli.
Cardiovascular and health improvements
If you're wondering, "Is swimming cardio (opens in new tab)?" the simple answer is yes. The exercise can give your cardiovascular system a real boost, if you commit to regular sessions.
What's more, researchers from Dalian University of Technology (opens in new tab) found that swimming can lower your blood pressure, while a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (opens in new tab) found that swimming three times a week can improve insulin sensitivity, as well as balance blood glucose levels, which can reduce your risk of diabetes and keep your weight in check.
It’s worth pointing out that these benefits are fairly standard across any kind of cardio exercise – but as long as you’re sticking to a routine swim schedule, you’ll start to see some health improvements.
While you might not get the same results as weightlifting participants, you can expect to see some positive muscular adaptations if you’re a regular swimmer.
One study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation (opens in new tab) (focusing specifically on middle-aged women) found that participants in a swimming programme saw improvements in muscular strength and endurance after 12 weeks.
These muscular adaptations come about as swimmers have to work against the resistance in the water to move forward. As with all resistance training, this repetitive action will eventually lead to muscular changes and improvements – however, it’s possible for swimmers to plateau when it comes to strength and muscle gains, so it’s important to either increase the duration of your swimming sessions or add in some dedicated weightlifting if you’re hoping for bigger, better muscles.
Find more tips in our piece on: 'Does swimming build muscle (opens in new tab)?'
How to get started
You only need to buy a small amount of kit before getting in the water, says Nuala Muir-Cochrane, the head of swimming at David Lloyd Clubs in the UK, “but wearing suitable swimwear and goggles can make your swims more enjoyable and productive.” The most important thing is to find a pool that’s convenient, friendly and not too busy. You may prefer an outdoor pool to an indoor one, and check for lane swimming, too.
Read our tips on how to get started with wild swimming (opens in new tab), if you fancy something more adventurous.
Nuala is no stranger to swimming, having first dipped her toe in the industry some 35 years ago. She currently teaches others how to improve their swim technique, how to conquer their fear of diving in and how to swim competitively. A former GB International swimmer, she participates in global swimming events when she isn't teaching.
“Most pools have a slow, medium, or fast lane, so if you aren’t sure of your speed, start with slow and work your way up at your own pace,” says Muir-Cochrane. And if you’re not keen on swimming in a lane, there’s often a free area which can feel less intimidating or formal. You don’t need to just swim laps either. Aqua aerobics classes are a fun way to enjoy the water and will help you to gently build muscle and get your heart pumping without putting excess strain on your body.
Swimming is a generally safe exercise. However, as with all forms of exercise, there are risks to be aware of. It’s great to choose a pool with a lifeguard for safety. If you suffer from skin ailments, such as psoriasis, it may be worth looking for a saltwater pool, which according to the National Psoriasis Foundation (NPF) (opens in new tab), can help remove dead skin and improve the appearance of psoriasis.
“Swimming can also feel pretty intimidating, especially for those who haven’t learnt to swim yet – or are scared of the water,” says Muir-Cochrane. “The good news is that just a few lessons, either one-to-one or in a group, can improve your water confidence quickly. So, why not embrace the challenge and jump right in. You’re never too old to learn to swim,” she says.