The Benefits of Swimming for Health and Fitness

A new study that shows evidence of the health and well-being benefits of swimming was released earlier this summer and this Get-Fit Guy is rubbing his flippers together with glee.

Brock Armstrong,
Episode #349

A photo of Lanes in a swimming pool Despite being born and raised in the cold, landlocked prairies of Canada, I have been a swimmer for my entire life and have always believed that there was more to the activity than simply splashing around in your skivvies or being pitted up against fellow pimply peers in a 100 meter sprint.

This new report was produced by the Swimming and Health Commission and the Commission was established by an organization called Swim England to identify evidence for the health benefits of swimming and to promote future research in this area. It is a rather long, detailed and well-referenced document called The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming which I encourage you to go check out but I will attempt to highlight here what I found to be the most interesting takeaways from the study.

Let's Dive In!

Right off the top, it is estimated in this study that those who swim for recreational or competitive purposes are eight times more likely to meet general physical activity guidelines (which includes being active for at least 150 minutes per week).

Long-term swim training can also improve cardiorespiratory fitness or endurance in certain subsets of the population as well, such as healthy pre-pubertal girls and adults, women during pregnancy, children with asthma, and adults with osteoarthritis (which is a rather common condition affecting joints, causing pain and stiffness). We’ll get into each of those a little later but you can see how far into the deep end the researchers went.

The study states that it is clear from the evidence that being able to swim and swimming regularly can have considerable health and wellbeing benefits. Research has identified that any amount of swimming participation compared to those who engaged in none, was associated with a 28% and 41% reduction in all cause and cardiovascular disease cause mortality respectively. The striking evidence of where swimming has afforded significantly improved health, quality of life and a sense of community are additionally impressive.

How Does Swimming Boost Health?

Most studies exploring the relationship between physical activity and physical health have generally focused on activities such as walking, cycling, running or aerobics classes despite the fact that swimming and other forms of aquatic exercise (aqua-jogging and aqua-aerobics for example) are some of the most popular choices for meeting physical activity recommendations – for their aerobic, strength and balance elements. This is often attributed to the fact that exercise in an aquatic environment confers many benefits – minimized weight-bearing stress, a humid environment and a decreased heat load (unless you swim in one of those oddly warm Therapeutic Pools that they had in my neighborhood as a kid… it was hard distinguish my sweat from the pool water).

The study compared the health aspects of swimming with alternative forms of aerobic exercise, and sedentary behavior. Participants included 10,518 women and 35,185 men aged 20- 88 years old. Now as with most studies of this type, the majority were Caucasian and of middle/upper socio-economic status, which is something I know many universities and research groups are trying to correct seeing as this is not a great way to draw sweeping conclusions over our much more diverse global population.

Screening included a formal subjective and objective history, anthropometric measurements, blood tests and a graded exercise test. Participants were categorized as ‘sedentary’ (no participation in activity over the previous three months), ‘walkers’ (primarily engaged in run/walk/jog at a pace ≥15min/mile), ‘runners’ (primarily engaged in run/walk/jog at a pace ≤15min/ mile), and ‘swimmers’ (exclusively engaged in swimming activity).

The results were pretty darn clear that all types of physical activity produced demonstrable health benefits in comparison to a sedentary lifestyle but of all the groups, swimming and running achieved the highest treadmill test duration and maximal metabolic equivalent levels. Although interestingly enough, the Body Mass Index (BMI) of swimmers was significantly higher than that of runners.


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