Fitness Basics: Swimming, No Pain, Plenty of Gain (cont.)

"It is a good, whole-body exercise that has low impact for people with arthritis, musculoskeletal, or weight limitations," says Robergs, director of the exercise physiology laboratories at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Water's buoyancy accommodates the unfit as well as the fit. Water cushions stiff joints or fragile bones that might be injured by the impact of land exercises. When immersed to the waist, your body bears just 50% of its weight; immersed to the chest, it's 25%-35%; and to the neck, 10%.

Athletes use water to rehabilitate after injury or to cross-train. People with arthritis or other disabilities use water to improve fitness and range of motion and to relieve pain and stiffness.

"Swimming is also desirable for people with exercise-induced asthma," says Robergs, "as the warm, humid air [around the pool] causes less irritation to the airways."

Fitness Benefits

Not only is swimming easy on the body, it's a great way to get fit, according to Tay Stratton, head swim coach at the Little Rock Athletic Club.

Swimming recruits all the major muscle groups, including the shoulders, back, abdominals, legs, hips, and glutes, she says. And because water affords 12 times the resistance as air in every direction, it really helps to build strength, she says.

"It's cardiovascular and strengthening at the same time, and not many workouts have that," says Stratton.

But can swimming help you lose weight?

There are some questions about how efficiently swimming burns calories, says Robergs.

"Research done on swimming showed that weight loss seemed more difficult," he says. "The theory is that the water submersion initiates a complex [nerve pathway] to lower metabolic rate." And with a lower metabolic rate, the body uses fewer calories to maintain normal function.

While Robergs says these explanations need further research, Stratton says swimming can be a boon for weight loss -- if you follow the same principles as with any other exercise, and challenge yourself.

For weight loss, Stratton recommends interval training, in which you push yourself hard for short spurts, and then drop back to a less-intense level of exercise.

"If you don't do interval training, it's just as if you're doing a slow walk," Stratton says.

"[Swimming is] a good way to get
back into fitness without having
such trauma in the body."

Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist for USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo., has many success stories of obese clients who lost weight after they began working out in the water.

One man was 500 pounds, had rheumatoid arthritis, and had to quit work because he couldn't get around.

"He went from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches to a cane to nothing by working out in the water," says Nelson. "He became one of my employees and lost over 250 pounds."

How to Get Started