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Health & Fitness

Dive into a new fitness routine and start swimming this summer

If you’ve only taken a dip in pools for leisure, learning how to swim for fitness isn't as challenging as it seems.

Person swimming in pool. Credit: Getty Images / JaySi

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When was the last time you went swimming? Maybe you take the occasional dip at a pool party or a casual beach day, but it may have been a minute—if at all—since you attempted some laps. But maybe it’s time to rethink that: Swimming regularly is great for your overall fitness. Not only does it boost your cardiovascular health, but the movement patterns required to swim activate almost every muscle in your body, making it a great choice for anyone looking to get stronger. Here’s what you need—and what you should know—before you get started.

What are the benefits of swimming?

Person floating in swimming pool.
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Swimming helps with mobility and heart health.

Similar to biking and running, swimming is a great aerobic exercise that can rev up your cardiovascular fitness, which can lead to a healthier heart and lungs. And because water-based workouts provide lots of resistance but are easy on your joints, swimming is a low-impact way to elevate your heart rate while building strength.

While gearing up for the pool might seem like lots of effort, know that you’re prepping for an efficient workout that uses almost every muscle in the body. “One of my favorite, lesser-known benefits of swimming is that it’s great for building strength in your abs and back,” says Matt Scarfo, a NASM-certified personal trainer based in New York City. “When you’re cruising through the water, it’s the muscles in your trunk that are driving power through your swimming stroke and supporting your body in the water. That means regular swimming can help improve balance and posture, which are great benefits.”

Who can benefit from swimming?

Swimming is a great exercise for anyone looking to get more fit, but it can be especially beneficial for those who want a low-impact workout. Runners or athletes looking to cross-train, anyone with joint or muscle pain, or overweight individuals who may experience discomfort while performing land-based exercises may enjoy swimming for fitness, says Scarfo. In addition, people with arthritis can benefit from swimming, as it can help alleviate symptoms and decrease pain.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t go swimming for exercise?

Person swimming underneath water's surface with goggles on.
Credit: Getty Images / Imgorthand

If you're not entirely comfortable with water or don't know how to swim, start small in shallow pools to ease potential anxiety.

Like any other activity, you should take proper precautions to get comfortable in the water. If you’re not an experienced swimmer, it’s a good idea to sign up for lessons to build up your stroke skills. If it’s just been a while, test your current ability by starting slow and steady, not just for your body but to get used to the sensation of being submerged. “Swimming efficiently often means rotating your breathing with your arm movements, and putting your face in the water, which can cause anxiety,” Scarfo says.

Like any other sport, swimming will tire out the muscles, and getting fatigued in deep water (especially open water) can be dangerous. Finding a shallower pool in which you can stand up with your face above water can help keep you safe, but you should always plan to swim in an area where a lifeguard is present, even if you’re an experienced swimmer.

Anyone with open wounds is generally advised to steer clear of swimming, so you’ll want to hold off on your laps until you’re fully healed. And while chlorine kills most germs, some sickness-causing bacteria and viruses can live in the water for days, so if you’re feeling ill, do your neighbors a favor and skip the public pool unti symptoms abate.

How can you find a swimming pool?

You can look into joining a local gym, YMCA, YWCA, or JCC, or boys’ and girls’ club with a pool—a quick Google search for pools near your address should lead to some options. Many towns have public or high school pools available to residents—and occasionally nearby non-residents—with designated lap swim hours for adults.

These pools may also be a great option for seeking private lessons or to join a masters team of adult swimmers for regular practices and meets.

What do you need to start swimming?

Person peering into pool with goggles.
Credit: Getty Images / Nomadsoul1

A standard pair of goggles, a swimsuit and a positive attitude is a good start when learning to swim.

Before you hit the water, you should go shopping. You’ll need a bathing suit, a swim cap, a pair of goggles, and a towel. While you could wear your favorite bikini or board shorts, you’ll be more comfortable in a streamlined option for workouts to reduce drag and help you swim faster.

In women’s sizes, we like Athleta’s offerings. Our reviewer raved about Athleta’s Scoop Bikini Top and Clean Medium Bottom and how supportive they were, saying the top fit more like a sports bra than a typical bikini. Both pieces come in sizes XXS to XL. If you’re looking for sleek swim trunks, Amazon shoppers have great things to say about the Speedo Men’s Swim Trunk in men’s sizes small to XXL. These bottoms have a 4.5-star rating on Amazon with more than 1,300 reviews, many touting the trunks as comfortable and supportive for a day in the pool or at the gym.

For a well-reviewed way to see underwater, try the Zionor G1 Polarized Swimming Goggles. This pair has 4.6 stars on Amazon and more than 15,500 reviews. Reviewers say these goggles are comfortable, don’t fog up, and block sunlight, making it easier to see outdoors.

We think the best beach towel is the PackTowl Personal Beach Towel—and some of our favorite of its features make it ideal for the pool, too. This towel is highly absorbent, lightweight, and comes with an attached carrying loop for easy toting to and from the pool or beach.

You may also want to opt for a swim cap, even if the pool doesn’t require one: Wearing one can help you swim more efficiently without having your hair drag you down. The silicone cap from Dsane is a popular option, with 4.3 stars and more than 7,000 reviews on Amazon. Reviewers say it fits snugly and is big enough to fit long or thick hair comfortably.

Lastly, don’t forget to bring an extra change of clothes to the pool, some fresh water to hydrate (yes, you can sweat while you swim!), and a snack to refuel.

What does a swimming workout look like?

Once you’re confident enough to get back in the water, how should you structure your training sessions? Start with shorter sessions, aiming for 30 minutes, a few times a week. “As a beginner, take time to focus on swimming efficiently, and perfecting your form,” Scarfo says.

Unless you are following a race-specific training program for a triathlon—which often requires swimming at different intensities as part of a larger training plan—you can aim to perform one stroke the entire workout, or add some variety, for example, 15 minutes of breast stroke and 15 minutes of freestyle. You can also use a kickboard to give your arms a rest and focus on your leg work and help build up your lower body strength. Once you get the hang of things, you can work your way up to longer, more frequent workouts, or even training for a local race or charity swim.

Finally, don’t forget to give yourself plenty of rest in between sessions, especially at first—two to three swims a week is plenty to start, though plenty of swimmers hit the pool even every day, once they’re up to speed.

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