The benefits of swimming: a beginner’s guide

Take the plunge. It's worth it.
An early morning swimmer
An early morning swimmerAn early morning swimmer

If you’re feeling inspired by Olympic swimmers, you should think about taking a dip yourself. Swimming is brilliant for both physical and mental health, with the list including weight loss, stress-relief and reduced risk of heart disease.

While we can’t promise you’ll be as fast as Michael Phelps, incorporating swimming into your exercise regime will help you feel healthier and happier, inside and out.

Physical health benefits of swimming

Regular exercise is crucial for staying in shape. Whether you train in the gym or play as part of a sports team, exercise is brilliant for mind and body – but swimming seems to have the full portfolio.

Muscles

If you’re looking for a full body workout, swimming engages muscles all the way from your head to your toes. Regular laps will help you burn fat, tone muscle and increase your overall strength. If done correctly, you can work up to 48 muscles at once.

Breaststroke or backstroke, freestyle or butterfly – each one of these strokes engages the major muscle groups, including your core, shoulders and legs. However, the different actions do put greater emphasis on certain muscles so if there’s one part of your body you want to strengthen, practise the most effective stroke:

· Freestyle works your arm muscles, mainly your biceps and triceps

· Breaststroke puts emphasis on the glutes and quadriceps in your legs, as well as your pectoral chest muscles

· Backstroke engages the latissimus dorsi muscles in your lower back and arms

· Butterfly tones and strengthens your upper back and neck muscles

Watch this video to find out more about each of the four key swimming strokes and see Olympic athletes demonstrate the moves at an elite level.

Joints

Unlike high-impact pursuits such as running and jogging, where the shock of impact can cause issues later on, swimming allows you to exercise without putting strain on your joints. With the water supporting the weight of your body, the risk of joint problems developing is reduced – and is the reason why swimming is recommended for people suffering from injuries and bone conditions such as arthritis.

Major organs

Heart, lungs, brain – almost all the major organs reap the health benefits of swimming. When you propel yourself through the water, your heart rate increases, pumping more blood around your body. Not only is this good for burning fat, but it also reduces the risk of heart disease. Swimmers usually develop greater lung capacity, as your body adapts to taking longer, deeper breaths to allow you to travel underwater.

Mental health benefits of swimming

Exercise has an incredibly powerful effect on your mental health and swimming is no different. When you’re working out, your brain releases feel-good endorphins, which make you feel positive and upbeat. If your daily routine includes exercise, you’ll find you generally sleep better, too.

Exercise has been closely linked with improving mental health, helping those suffering from stress, depression, anxiety or other conditions. The soothing colour and texture of water have been celebrated for years as having a calming effect on our mental wellbeing. In fact, biologist Wallace J Nichols spent years researching the phenomenon of the so-called “blue mind”.

Swimming requires you to regulate your breathing, usually taking deeper breaths less frequently. As a result, swimming can ease the anxious uptake of shallow breaths and help to lull your mind into a gentle rhythm.

Health benefits of open water swimming

Taking the plunge in open water brings all the benefits listed above – and several more. The cold shock wakes you up, that’s for sure, and brings your body temperature down, too. In reaction to this, your body sets all the cogs in motion to start warming up. Your heart rate will increase, along with your blood flow and metabolism, which puts you in fat-burning mode.

Feeling the chill isn’t the only difference with open water swimming – you also have the current to contend with. Much like going uphill on a bicycle, the current provides greater resistance for your body, making you work harder to move forward. The key here is consistent, steady strokes, rather than going flat out and exhausting yourself. You’ll find it does wonders for your endurance.

Watch this video to find out more about the 10km marathon swim - the only open water swimming event at the Olympic Games. Make sure you tune in to the race at Tokyo 2020 to witness open water swimming on an elite scale.

How to get involved

In addition to the health benefits, swimming also opens the door to a world of social opportunities. Whether you’d like to stay in the pool or head out in the big blue, find out how to get involved in your local swimming scene.

Indoor swimming

Join a gym which has swimming facilities or head to the public pool. Enquire about group sessions if you’d like to enjoy a more sociable experience. Once you’re comfortable with your technique, put your name down for a charity swim or similar event to test your abilities in a relaxed setting.

Take a dip to remember in one of the historic Olympic pools, many of which are open for the public use. You could do lengths in the Olympic venue in Sydney or practice your strokes at the London Aquatic Centre. Or how about plunging into a Parisian pool that was the first ever 'Olympic-sized' swimming pool?

Open water swimming

You’ll find open water swimming clubs near most rivers and coastal areas. In the UK, Brighton Swimming Club has been welcoming members to brave the chill of the English Channel since 1860. In Australia, Sydney Swimmers offer casual courses in the pool to help prepare you for the unique challenges of swimming out in the open. If you’re in America and want to support a cause, Swim Across America helps raise money for researching cancer.

Open water swimmers travel around the world, exploring some of the most idyllic coves, beaches and lakes on the planet. It’s easy to see how it can become a passion. Take a look at the Wild Swim Map to find the perfect spot for your next open water adventure.

Whether you’re a strong swimmer or building your confidence, a little local research will help you find a setting that fits. Pack your swimmers – or your wetsuit – and start reaping the physical and mental health benefits of swimming today.

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