What are the Benefits of Swimming?

If you are not an individual who has aquaphobia (the intense fear of being in water, whether it’s natural or a man-made pool), then being immersed in H2O is more than just a way to cool off!

Just a few notes about fear of water if you or a friend or family member experiences it:  aquaphobia can be a learned fear from a parent, grandparent, older sibling, or a negative experience early in life. This can be corrected with therapy.  If you know of someone who says he or she is afraid to go swimming, the fear is real!

You can do the basic freestyle (also called the front crawl), but if you wanted to learn other strokes, there is the breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and sidestroke – while all give your whole body a great workout, there are nuances between what muscle groups are worked harder with each style. 

According to one source, the muscles strengthened from regular swimming are:

  • Core abdominal and lower back muscles.
  • Deltoid and shoulder muscles 
  • Forearm muscles 
  • Upper back muscles 
  • Glutes and hamstring muscles 

Unlike muscle size gained from bodybuilding, improved muscular tone and strength from swimming also facilitate flexibility.

According to the SwimStrong Foundation, “Swimming puts the body through a broad range of motion that helps joints and ligaments stay loose and flexible. It’s a great way to increase muscle strength and tone. Water is 12 times denser than air. Propelling through the water acts as resistance exercise…which is the best way to build muscle tone and strength. Additionally, swimming has also been shown to improve bone strength — especially in post-menopausal women.”


Not just muscles but the health of joints and ligaments can be supported by a swimming regimen as well. One review of six human trials with approximately 800 participants with knee and hip joint degradation found that although larger, longer-term studies on definitive benefit are lacking, “Aquatic exercise appears to have some beneficial short-term effects for patients with hip and/or knee OA.”


However, one study of 35 post-menopausal women who performed three one-hour water exercise sessions per week for seven months found that there as improvement in bone mineral content compared to the control group of women.

Another plus swimming provides is aerobic exercise, which significantly promotes heart and cardiovascular function and structure: regular swimming helps the heart become larger, which makes it more functionally efficient in pumping ability, leading to more vigorous blood flow throughout the body (even into the tiny capillaries in your eyes). If you are a woman who can swim for only a half hour a day, according to one source, you can reduce risk of coronary heart disease by 30 to 40 percent!

Other factors that are involved in CHD risk are weight, lipids (cholesterol) and the interaction between blood sugar and insulin –also known as cardiometabolic factors. In one study, researchers wanted to compare the effects of walking and swimming in 116 sedentary middle-aged and older women (aged 50 to 70); they walked or swam three times a week for six months. While women in both groups lost weight, those who swam lost a little more; and while they both saw improvements in cholesterol profiles, the swimmers had higher improvements. Overall, concluded the authors, “Compared with walking, swimming improved body weight, body fat distribution, and insulin in the short term and, in the longer term, body weight and lipid measures. These findings suggest that the type of exercise can influence health benefits.”

According to one source, the average person can burn quite a lot of calories during swimming – between 430 and 575 per hour, depending on one’s weight and speed of sluicing the water. For example, a 200-pound healthy person can burn 935 calroies an hour with vigorous freestyle laps, while a 150-pound person swimming a backstroke will burn 344 calories per hour. It’s clear to see that swimming is a highly effective tool for weight loss.


Well-functioning cardiometabolic factors and being in a healthy weight range can lead to better chances of healthy longevity.


Researchers at the University of South Carolina followed 40,547 men, aged 20 to 90, for 32 years and found that those who swam had a 50 percent lower mortality rate than those who ran/jogged and walked as well as sedentary men. The study authors also stated that the same benefits would be received by women too.

Brain and mood health, tied into the stress reduction afforded by fitness routines, especially swimming, are also significantly improved when enjoying aquatic exercise. Swimming improves cerebrovascular function (blood flow throughout the brain). Healthy cerebrovascular function improves memory, clarity/acuity, focus and mood. In one study, participants who were immersed in water up to their shoulders had better brain blood flow than when standing on terra firma. Specifically, blood flow to their middle cerebral arteries increased by 14 percent, while blood flow to their posterior cerebral arteries increased by 9 percent.


Another study of 18 athletes showed that breast-stroke swimming increased mean middle cerebral artery blood velocity (cerebrovascular function), and that “swimming improved cognitive functioning acutely.”


To evaluate the potential neurotrophic factors that are involved in the anti-depressive effects of exercise, one team of researchers found that swimming dramatically improved the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and BDNF-regulated peptides and restored their stress-induced downregulation. The results, they stated, suggest that swimming has antidepressant effects, increasing the resistance to the neural damage caused by chronic unpredictable mild stress.



Many shore regions host charity “Polar Bear Plunges,” where people run into the icy waters in wintertime often to raise money for a charity. Although this sounds rather fearsome, cold-water swimming is a norm in northern environs and a growing competitive sport, so it is worth a mention. And one review that discusses research into the health benefits and risks of cold swimming is worth the read if you may be considering taking such a plunge. 


Cold, hot or just right temperature – swimming or any aquatic exercise has tremendous benefits on health and well-being. Also worth noting is shoreline or saltwater swimming, which provides environmental factors that increase well-being (such as the scent of salt water, the breezes, sounds of water birds). Psychiatrist Arghya Sarkhel, MD, stated, “The touch of sand and the smell of a seaside breeze leads to relaxation. On a biological level, this audio-visual stimulus incites our parasympathetic nervous system – that activates ‘rest and digest’, as opposed to ‘fight or flight.”

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