From Women’s Health
You already know that cardio exercise is one common component of weight loss success. But if you’ve been relying on traditional methods like cycling and running recently, you might want to change up your routine and give swimming a try.
“Although swimming seems relatively hard and sometimes scary, it’s one of the best cardiovascular workouts anyone of any age can do,” says Kris Gagne, senior swim coach for Life Time, and a USA-registered and ASCA-certified swim coach. “It’s an aerobic workout that helps strengthen the heart muscle, and it’s easy on your joints, too, since the water will support 90 percent of your body weight.”
In fact, swimming can actually work as both a cardio and a strength activity. The act of swimming will pump your heart rate up and burn calories, while the different strokes and fighting through the water’s resistance will help strengthen your muscles.
Of course, trying a new workout routine can be challenging. Here’s what to know about swimming for weight loss and how to make the most of your swim workouts.
How does swimming help you lose weight?
“Swimming can absolutely help you lose weight, as it’ll increase your heart rate and tone muscles,” says Gagne. Swimming truly is a full-body workout, and each stroke uses the muscles in different ways. You’re constantly using your core to stay up in the water, so it incorporates arms, legs, and core equally.
For the someone who is 125 pounds, doing 30 minutes of freestyle can burn 330 calories, butterfly can burn 330, backstroke can burn 240, and breaststroke can burn 300, per a Harvard University study. For a 185-pound person, those same workouts would burn 488, 488, 355, and 440 calories respectively.
By comparison, a chart from the American Council of Exercise shows that running for 30 minutes can burn 342 calories for a 120-pound person and 510 calories for a 180-pound person. Cycling at an average of 10 miles per hour for 30 minutes can burn 165 calories for a 120-pound person and 246 calories for a 180-pound person. Clearly, swimming is right up there with the best of cardio activities.
Can swimming help you lose belly fat?
Since swimming is a full-body workout, it can definitely help you lose belly fat. But Gagne warns against focusing on “spot training,” or trying to work only one body part to lose weight from that specific area, especially since your body composition and genetics can play a role in where you store fat. (You also can’t control where you lose fat from first!) Still, swimming can help you lose weight, which will lead to the loss of fat overall, including belly fat eventually, and certain strokes work the abs especially well.
“Swimming works a lot of different muscles throughout the entire body, but when it comes to targeting certain areas, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke will engage your core more. The more you are engaging them, the more work you’re putting into that certain area for leaner muscle,” says Gagne. Still, he notes, “the best way to help with losing belly fat is making sure that you are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet to complement all the hard work you’re putting in.”
How much do you have to swim to lose weight?
The good news is, you don’t really have to start off with too much, especially if you’re new to swimming. “In the beginning, going three times a week for 30 minutes will benefit you greatly,” says Gagne. “You will find that you are using muscles you didn’t even know you had.”
However, it’s important to note that a big part of losing weight includes eating at a calorie deficit, so you should ideally be eating less calories than you’re burning. A good way to calculate calories burned through swimming is by using an online calorie counter and taking a look at the Compendium of Physical Activities site.
This website uses units called METs, otherwise known as the ratio of your metabolic rate while doing a particular activity versus your metabolic rate while at rest. From the CPA site, it’s clear that depending on your stroke and intensity, your MET can be anywhere from 4.8 to 13.8. By using the calorie counter and inserting body weight, MET, and duration, you can figure out approximately how many calories you’re burning per activity.
Essentially, in order to lose between one to two pounds per week, you need to burn 500 calories a day. You can either eat 500 less calories, exercise to burn 500 calories, or do a combination of both. Thirty minutes of vigorous butterfly in a 130-pound adult, for instance, burns 472 calories, so you can easily use swimming to meet your deficit goals.
What does a swimming workout look like for beginners?
While freestyle is generally considered the fastest and easiest stroke to learn, Gagne actually recommends starting with breaststroke. “I start with this one because it’s one that does burn quite a bit of calories, and it allows newer swimmers to keep their heads out of water at first, at least until they become more comfortable with swimming and breathing technique.”
To start, Gagne recommends swimming slowly for 30 minutes three times a week, and then building speed or amount of time spent in the pool at the four-week mark. Once you feel comfortable just swimming for 30 minutes, give this swim interval workout a try:
Slowly warm up with four lengths of the pool (with a maximum of 25 breaths between each length)
Swim at a moderate intensity for five lengths without stopping
Swim at a high intensity, or a fast as you can go, for another five lengths without stopping
Slowly cool down for two lengths
“As you learn other strokes, you can vary your swim workouts in order to target different parts of the body,” says Gagne. “You will find yourself cruising at a faster speed the more you swim—it just takes some practice.”
How can you burn more calories while swimming?
There are several ways you can burn more calories swimming. Try these ideas next time you want a more challenging workout.
Increase resistance. You can increase resistance in the water by adding flippers, resistance bands, or buoys. Any items that makes it harder for you to kick and stroke through the water will increase your strength.
Change up your stroke. The type of stroke you use also makes a huge difference, with studies showing that butterfly burns the most calories, closely followed by breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle. It’s not easy to do an hour of butterfly, though, so instead, Gagne recommends a combination of all the different strokes. In your workouts, aim to do your harder strokes for a minute or two at a time, and then sub in freestyle for when you get completely exhausted as an active recovery.
Incorporate intervals. HIIT intervals can help you burn more calories when you swim, since the faster you go, the more challenging the workout. “Research from the American College of Sports Medicine estimates that a 155-pound person swimming freestyle fast for an hour will burn 704 calories, as compared to 493 calories swimming at a slower pace,” says Gagne. However, since you probably won’t be able to swim that fast nonstop, incorporating intervals will help. For example, swimming as many lengths as fast as you can for 30 seconds, with a 30 second break in between. Breaking up your workout into sets of specific intervals allows you to maintain a higher rate of speed and stroke form, which will help you improve your performance and the amount of calories burned.
Work out with a swim coach. “A swim coach can also help you create a workout plan and incorporate breath exercises so that you can slowly build up your time and speed over the course of a few months,” says Gagne, which will lead to more calories burn in the pool. “Getting started is probably the hardest part, especially if you’re not an experienced swimmer,” says Gagne. But a coach can help you move past any fear or hesitation so that swimming can become a fun, go-to workout for you.
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