Swimming is one of the most fun and low-impact forms of exercise. Penny Hunking examines the many health benefits of this all-round body workout
Swimming is unique! A great form of exercise for almost everybody regardless of age, health or ability, swimming can be a super way to help you reach your weekly physical activity target. Accessible to virtually everyone, swimming can positively impact on your physical and mental wellbeing and help you live longer. The good news is you can start to swim from birth, but if you can’t swim, or aren’t a confident swimmer, it’s never too late to learn.
“84% of UK population live within 2 miles of a pool
Source: LeisureDB 2017 State of the UK Swimming Industry Report„
What are the health benefits of swimming?
Swimming is, in effect, a total body workout. It’s low-impact, non-weight bearing and swimmers stay cooler than those who, say, run or cycle, so it’s tremendous for everybody, including those who are pregnant or suffer an injury or long-term illness.
Water is around 800 times denser than air so your body works harder to move through it, but at a lower impact compared to other activities. Regular swimming can help keep you in shape, boost mood and help reduce the risk of chronic disease such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. It’s particularly helpful for people with long-term health problems and can help reduce joint pain in those who suffer arthritis. People who swim, either for recreation or for competitive purposes, are thought to be eight times more likely to meet the physical activity guidelines.
“Water is around 800 times denser than air„
Swimming during the life stages
Swimming is an extremely important ability to learn from an early age and can help children master skills such as walking, talking and counting more quickly.
The UK is surrounded by water and the ability to swim increases a child’s chance of survival should they ever get into difficulty in a swimming pool, lake, river or at the seaside. Taking babies and toddlers to splash around in the pool will help build their confidence in water. Many pools offer baby swim lessons, and these gradually change to more structured lessons between the ages of three to five years.
Encouraging youngsters to swim is just one way to get them more active – and with good reason too. Less than one in ten under-fives meet the UK’s Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for being active for three hours a day. Less than one in four under elevens are active for one hour a day.
Ideally, no child should leave school unable to meet the minimum standard of capability and confidence in swimming and a ‘water skills’ element has been introduced into the National Curriculum. By the end of Key Stage 2 (eleven years old), pupils are expected to be able to swim at least one 25 metre length, have basic skills in personal survival and demonstrate an understanding of water safety.
Swimming is a great activity and it’s important for parents, grandparents and other carers to support children in learning to swim – get all the family involved and get fitter together.
“Less than one in ten under-fives meets the UK’s Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for being active for three hours a day„
According to the Amateur Swimming Association, up to nine million people over 14 years old in England have never learned to swim, particularly those above 65 years old (March 2015). Still, it’s never too late to learn and many facilities offer specific lessons for adults to learn to swim. Beginners lessons focus on building your confidence in the water and teaching you the basic strokes. Swim instructors are used to dealing with even the most nervous of adults and have buckets of patience.
Regular swimming holds a host of potential health benefits for adults of all ages, including:
• A whole-body workout with little impact on joints
• Improved muscle tone and strength
• Improved flexibility
• Relief of anxiety and stress and a boost to wellbeing
• Improvement of asthma symptoms by mastering correct breathing
• Reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
• Relief of pain from arthritis
• Benefit to mental health by boosting blood flow to the brain
• Improved bone density, particularly for post-menopausal women
Public Health England recommends adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity every week and swimming can help achieve that goal.
What to pack for swimming
- Towel, swimwear
- Cap, goggles
- Toiletries, hairbrush
- Water bottle
- Snacks such as fresh fruit or dried fruit and nuts
- Flip flops/pool shoes
- Change/coins for the locker
Swimming is considered safe in pregnancy and can help keep you fit. The water helps support extra baby weight which can be a great relief, particularly in the final stages of pregnancy. If you have a healthy pregnancy, swimming can be a super choice of regular exercise but check with your health professional first if swimming is new to you.
If you’re a regular swimmer before you became pregnant, you should be able to continue with your usual routine throughout pregnancy. Choose a stroke you enjoy and feels comfortable. Some pools offer special aquanatal sessions – a great way to meet other expectant mums.
“3,158 swimming sites
Source: LeisureDB 2017 State of the UK Swimming Industry Report„
Got an injury? Go for a swim!
Because it’s low impact and not weight bearing, swimming is ideal for those who suffer an injury. It can offer great relief from joint pain and for those who’ve suffered a back injury or injury to the sciatic nerve.
Swimming offers a cardiovascular workout whilst helping to mobilise and loosen muscles and increase flexibility, so can help keep fitness while other activities are difficult. Seek the guidance of your health professional or physiotherapist before you start exercising, but swimming seems a good starting place.
Does swimming make you hungry?
Many find themselves ravenous after a swim; however, research suggests that while you swim, appetite is suppressed but can increase afterwards. Often thirst is mistaken for hunger – you still sweat while swimming but may not notice it in the pool, so take a water bottle poolside and continue to drink while changing. Be prepared and take healthy snacks such as a sandwich, yoghurt or fruit to eat after your swim.
Can you eat before you swim?
It’s often said you need to wait 30 minutes after eating before you swim, but that’s simply an old wives’ tale. The theory your blood goes to your stomach so puts you at risk of drowning doesn’t hold out as we have plenty of blood to keep our legs and arms going after a meal. It’s common sense that if you eat lots of food you may feel uncomfortable when you exercise and that includes swimming. If you’re planning to swim, moderate what and how much you eat just before going for your dip.
The final word
Two and a half million people aged 16 years old and over swim once a week for at least 30 minutes. That’s encouraging, but there’s plenty of room in the pool for more people to swim more often. Eight out of ten of us live within two miles of a pool and with 3,158 swimming sites in the UK, there’s ample opportunity to swim or do other water based activities. You don’t have to swim up and down the pool to reap the benefits – consider joining aqua jogging, aquarobics or aqua Zumba classes. These sessions don’t need any special equipment, put less stress on your joints and muscles, help build your strength and are social and good fun.
Dive into the open water
Once you feel confident, why not get adventurous and consider swimming in the open water. Perhaps you will discover a new freedom of swimming in lakes, rivers and lochs? For more information, look at the advice right here: http://www.swimming.org/justswim/starting-open-water-swimming/.
References available upon request.
Penny Hunking RD, R.SEN and Editor of Eating Well, Living Well, loves life, food and keeps regularly active. For many years, Penny taught a regular programme of fitness and exercise classes. These days she still practices what she preaches and can regularly be found in the gym, at the lake or walking and cycling (preferably along bridal pathways and local canal and river routes) around her local area.