By Kelly Steffy | Therapydia Vancouver
Are you thinking about alternative ways to exercise? Swimming is one way you can get a whole body workout. There are many benefits of swimming ranging from resistance training to breathing control. Swimming allows you to exercise at any level, as there are many ways to modify the exercise depending on both current level of fitness and the goals you want to achieve.
Swimming is one form of exercise that has the ability to workout your entire body. With the water providing resistance, each stroke uses your upper body while kicking utilizes your legs. The muscles used can depend on which stroke you are performing. The most common stroke is freestyle, also known as front crawl. Freestyle utilizes the rotator cuff (shoulder), latissimus (back), and pectorals (chest) just to name a few with solely using the arms. Kicking may seem passive but it uses the glutes (buttock), quads (thigh), hamstrings, and even the calves and muscles in your feet. The core is highly utilized as it can be used in the breaststroke (aka frog stroke) or butterfly stroke to lift the upper body out of the water to breathe. See how this is an entire body workout yet?
Swimming involves cardiovascular (cardio) exercise as it increases your heart rate and requires that you control your breathing when the head is under the water. When the body is horizontal like when you are swimming the front crawl, this allows more blood to return to the heart as compared to running where the blood can pool in the legs. As with many sports or types of cardio endurance training, increasing your heart rate is essential to improving your cardio fitness. Swimming may help in reducing risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. It also improves circulation throughout the body.
Water provides a resistance component due to its viscosity or internal friction and surface tension. Swimming is not just a cardiovascular exercise, but also a resistance exercise. Remember all those muscles listed above? Well, they are all working against resistance, no matter what level you are at. The water also prevents sudden, jerky movements that can potentially lead to injury.
Another way to use the water for resistance is to walk in water. If you were to walk in a pool with the head above water, this represents walking at 8-10% of your body weight. Walking at a water level just below your belly button is similar to walking at 47-54% of your body weight. This can be used for injury rehab to decrease weight bearing through the legs after a surgery or after sustaining a fracture.
Swimming and running can help you to burn around the same number of calories. However, swimming provides much less pressure on your joints. It can be used as a good alternative to running if you have conditions such as knee or hip osteoarthritis. Due to the buoyancy of water as mentioned above, you can walk as low as 8-10% of your body weight depending on the level of the water you walk in. As a physical therapist, improving strength and range of motion of the legs will decrease the pain in the hips or knees. However weight bearing activities like running or walking helps to maintain bone health. Walking in water can supplement walking or running until you are able to return to those activities.
Exercise promotes the release of endorphins, which can change the body’s perception of pain as well as our mood. The brain constantly communicates with the nerves throughout the body. When the body experiences pain, the nerves send a signal to the brain and this can be perceived as a threat to the body. Endorphins are a feel-good chemical that occurs naturally in the body and by releasing endorphins, the brain can change how the body is perceiving that pain or threat. Endorphins can be linked to improving overall well-being and the mental health of a person.
The different types of strokes used in swimming may require varying amounts of range of motion throughout the body. Freestyle or the front crawl is a great way to improve rotation of your cervical spine (neck) and you need to turn your head to breathe. It also allows for low impact movement of the shoulder
Swimming requires coordination of the joints to complete each stroke in order to flow through the water. Even Olympic swimmers work on coordination and form to improve their stroke. For example, the shoulder joint or complex is made up of many muscles and bones including the scapula (shoulder blade), humerus (upper arm), and the clavicle (collarbone). The muscles that control the movement of your arm have to work together in synchronization with the muscles of the back, axilla, and chest to coordinate any movement. Swimming is a great way to train this as you get to practice with every stroke. A common impairment is to have end range weakness of any joint. The resistance of water will help to improve end range strength as the resistance is the same throughout the entire motion, rather than changing as a theraband would. This also decreases the sudden, jerky motions mentioned above.
Decreases swelling and improves fluid mobility
Water provides a hydrostatic pressure gradient that assists with fluid mobility within the body. The hydrostatic pressure increases both lymph and venous flow. This prevents swelling and reduces edema. Hydrostatic pressure increases as the depth of water increases. If you were to walk in 3 feet of water, the hydrostatic pressure at the level of your knees and feet will assist in venous return back to the heart as the pressure is greatest at the feet.
Exercising without sweating
Many might enjoy the benefit of not sweating while swimming. It’s not that you don’t sweat, you will, but won’t notice the sticky and dripping sensation of sweating because you are in the water.
If you have an injury or are worried about a potential injury prior to beginning to swim, we can help you here at Therapydia. We have physical therapists trained in movement analysis that can help you modify an activity so that you are comfortable and also prevent injuries. As part of a movement analysis, the physical therapist will ask about prior injuries, test range of motion, strength, and assess your movement patterns in order to screen for injury. The physical therapist can also suggest the most appropriate style of swimming for you and may provide exercises to address any impairments.