When it comes to activities that can help you lose weight, swimming probably isn't at the top of your list. Running, yes. Strength training, definitely. But swimming? Is splashing around really a serious fat burner?
According to swim coach Stacy Caprio it is. “Swimming is one of the best activities you can do to tone and slim your entire body,” she says. You use your arms and legs to stay afloat and your back muscles to propel you. Plus, if you're burnt out on other forms of cardio like walking or jogging, swimming can be a welcome change.
Best of all, you don’t have to commit to an Ian Thorpe-style training routine to reap the benefits. Here’s what makes swimming a stellar exercise for slimming down, plus some simple tips for diving in.
How swimming can help you lose weight
Like all types of cardiovascular exercise, swimming burns kilojoules and can help you lose weight. But unlike, say, walking or jogging, moving through the water creates extra resistance, forcing you to use your muscles more.
“Swimming tones your upper body, lower body, and core at the same time, giving you a full-body workout and more overall muscle definition versus other cardio activities like running,” says Caprio. For example, the breaststroke and butterfly work your shoulders, arms, and chest, while the back stroke strengthens your back, abs, and quads.
And by building more muscles, you're also burning more kilojoules. Just 30 minutes of swimming the breaststroke can burn around 1,535kJ (367cal) while swimming freestyle torches approximately 1,690kJ (404cal). Compare that to just 418kJ (100cal) for 30 minutes of brisk walking or 1,255kJ (300cal) for 30 minutes of running at 10kph.
Another boon? It doesn't take long to reap the fat-burning benefits of swimming. Research shows that middle-aged women who swam for 60 minutes three times a week lost a significant amount of body fat in just 12 weeks. They also boosted their endurance, improved their flexibility, and even lowered their cholesterol.
Can swimming help you lose belly fat?
Remember, any activity that burns kilojoules will help you shed fat all over-including around your middle. Certain swimming exercises also target your core specifically, like flutter kicks (lower abs) and butterfly kicks (obliques). In fact, a 2015 study found that women who swam three times a week shed more fat around their waists and hips compared to those who walked three times a week.
Another big benefit: Water-based workouts are low-impact, so they tend to be easier on your hips, knees, and feet. “Swimming can give you cardio and muscle building without the heavy wear and tear on your body that you might get from a ground-based activity like running,” Caprio says.
How much do you have to swim to lose weight?
It all depends on how intense your workout is. Swimming vigorously for an hour burns around 3,347kJ (800cal). Do that four times a week, and you could lose 1-2kg in a month. (You need to burn around 14,650kJ (3,500cal) to lose 500g)
Prefer a less intense approach? Swimming at a moderate pace for 30 minutes burns around 1,046kJ (250cal). Do that four times a week, and in a month, you’ll lose around half a kilo.
But every body is different, and research suggests that some people lose more or less weight than others - even when they do the same amount of exercise. However, making exercises, like swimming, a part of your regular routine can help you reach or maintain a healthy weight. If you’re trying to drop kilos, consider aiming to do moderate or vigorous exercises like swimming for around an hour a day.
How to get the most out of your swimming workout
Swimming for exercise might be a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but getting started is easy. Here are some expert tips:
Start with a simple stroke. Breaststroke and freestyle are the easiest to master, so they tend to work well for beginners, says competitive swimmer Stella Metsovas. Once you get those down, you can experiment with more challenging ones like backstroke or butterfly.
Get a kickboard. Tight hips can make kicking feel tough and even uncomfortable. But you can loosen up and expand your range of motion by doing laps with a kickboard, Metsovas says.
Add some speed. Intervals are a great way to increase the intensity of your workout and burn more calories, Metsovas says. Try going hard and fast for one lap and recovering at a slower pace for two laps, repeating as desired.
Check your breathing. The wrong breathing technique can make it harder to get into a rhythm and tire you out faster. “Many people will lift their head too high each time they breathe and it disrupts the flow of their stroke,” Caprio says. Try practicing turning your head just enough so you can take a breath from your mouth without actually lifting your head out of the water, she recommends.
Ready to dive in? Check your local pool or nearby gym to see if they have a pool available to use. When the weather gets warmer, consider making a trip to the nearest beach or lake a few days a week to squeeze a swim in.