Swimming: types, benefits, importance and research

Swimming is one of the activities that people of all ages enjoy. Apart from being a popular sport in many countries, it is also a great way to bond with families and friends during summer. Swimming is not only enjoyable, but it can help you to stay fit and healthy!

Since it is a low-impact activity, many older adults and young children prefer this type of exercise to promote both physical and mental health. 

Types of Swimming 

Swimming for competition 

Competitive swimming is for people who want to take this sport to a competitive level. During the Olympics, swimming remains one of the marquee events, with many people watching the games and rooting for their favourite swimmer. 

Competitive swimming requires numerous hours of training over prolonged periods. Olympians start very young and spend most of their time training for specific swimming events. As elite athletes, Olympian swimmers show the power and benefits of this sport. These swimmers demonstrate how swimming is a vigorous workout while introducing fans to the thrill of competitive sports. 

During competitive swimming, the main strokes used are: 

  • Butterfly stroke Called a short-axis stroke, the power of this stroke comes from the hips. The arms are stretched in front of the athlete and pulled down to the highs before coming out of the water and back again in their outstretched position. Dolphin kicks support the simultaneous arm motion. The head of the athlete is lifted above the water for a breath while the arms are midway pulled towards the thighs. 
  • Freestyle – Among the four strokes, freestyle is recognized as the fastest stroke. This type of stroke is used for sprint races such as the 50-yard or 100, 200, 500 yard and distance races such as the 1000 and 1650-yard swims. Freestyle is also used for relay events with four consecutive swimmers at distances of 200, 400 or 800 yards. 
  • Breaststroke – Like butterfly stroke, this is also called a short-axis stroke. This is the oldest of the four strokes, with athletes competing in 100 to 200-yard distances. During the breaststroke, a swimmer moves both arms simultaneously in a wide pull. This pull is combined with a kick that resembles a frog’s motion. During every stroke, a swimmer takes a breath. The stroke consists of pulling, breathing, kicking, and gliding. The legs and arms of the swimmers are fully extended during the glide for efficient motion. 
  • Backstroke – This stroke is similar to the freestyle stroke with rotating arm motions and a flutter kick. There is side-to-side rotation for efficient movement, which is similar to freestyle. During each arm rotation, the swimmer also rotates their opposite shoulder out of the water while the other arm pulls down to the thigh of the swimmer. This stroke is raced at 100 and 200-yard distances. 
Swimming: types, benefits, importance, and research

Recreation swimming 

All people of all ages can enjoy swimming as a recreation. This type of swimming provides people with a low-impact workout. Further, it is also an excellent way to feel good and relax with friends and family. 

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Similar to competitive swimming, there are also four common swimming styles: 

  • Sidestroke
  • Backstroke 
  • Breaststroke 
  • Freestyle 

Swimming and its health benefits 

Swimming is an essential full-body exercise workout as you swim against the resistance of the water. 

Cardiovascular fitness 

Any type of exercise is better than no exercise at all. One of the most common forms of exercise is walking, which is feasible for many people as it is a low-impact activity and can be done anytime indoors or outdoors. Running is another common exercise since it is an extension of walking. Next to these two exercises is swimming. Considered an all-body workout, swimming also dramatically improves cardiovascular fitness. 

In a study published in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education [1], investigators examined the association between swimming, running, and walking on all-cause mortality of 40 547 men aged 20 to 90. All the participants completed a health examination from 1971 to 2003 for 32 years. The investigators observed 543,330 person-years and recorded 3 386 deaths. After adjusting for body-mass index, age, alcohol intake, smoking, and family history of cardiovascular disease, the researchers found out that the swimmers had the lowest all-cause mortality risk compared with walkers, runners or those with a sedentary lifestyle. 

Results showed that swimmers had 53% lower all-cause mortality risk than sedentary people. When compared with walkers or runners, swimmers had a 50% and 49% lower risk of all-cause mortality, respectively. The investigators, who are faculty members of the Exercise Science Department of the University of South Carolina, Columbia, concluded that swimmers had lower mortality rates than sedentary people, runners and walkers. After the longitudinal study, all participants were followed-up for an additional 13 years. At the end of the follow-up period, only 2% of the swimmers died compared with 8% of runners. Meanwhile, 9% of the walkers and 11% of non-exercisers died during the follow-up period. 

Swimming is a crucial all-over workout since it works both the lungs and the heart. This workout trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently. As a result, the breathing and resting heart rates reduce following years of a swimming workout. For instance, the resting heart rate for non-athletes is 60-70 beats per minute. In contrast, swimmers have a resting heart rate of 40-60 beats per minute, demonstrating oxygen efficiency. Non-athletes have a normal breathing rate of 12-20 breaths per minute. However, the fitter you are, the lower your breathing rate. For competitive swimmers, the breath rate may be as low as eight breaths/per minute. 

Swimming improves muscle strength and flexibility. 

Since swimming uses both arms and legs and other muscle groups, it improves flexibility and muscle strength. 

Regular swimming can improve physical strength and composition in middle-aged women and reduce blood lipid levels. A study [2] published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation recruited a total of 24 middle-aged women who were assigned to the swimming group and a control group. The average age in the swimming group was 45.5 years, and 47.2 in the control group. There were no significant differences in each group’s height, weight and BMI. 

Women in the swimming group performed exercises for 60 minutes thrice a week for a total of 180 minutes. The exercise sessions lasted for 12 weeks. The control group did not engage in any exercise during the duration of the study. 

Results indicated significant differences in physical composition between the swimming and control groups at the end of the study. There were also substantial differences in physical strength, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility between groups. There were significant differences in total cholesterol between the groups. 

Although the study had a relatively small sample size, the findings are significant since it adds to evidence of the effectiveness of swimming in reducing body fats, increasing a person’s physical strength and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disorders. 

Results are also essential when promoting longevity among middle-aged women. This study showed that swimming is an excellent exercise in improving strength and flexibility, reducing body fats and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease in older women. Since swimming minimizes the stress in joints, it would help middle-aged women with pain in their knee joints engage in exercise that does not negatively impact their joints. 

Reduction of osteoarthritis pain 

People with osteoarthritis and associated joint pain would find it difficult to perform exercises such as walking and running. However, the good news is they can exercise through swimming. Swimming is known to be an ideal form of exercise for patients with joint pain and arthritis. 

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Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and a significant cause of pain and physical disability. The knee is recognized as the most commonly affected joint. Risk factors associated with knee osteoarthritis include increased age and body-mass index, female gender, prior ACL tears, prior history of trauma, and meniscal damage or surgery [3]. 

A randomized trial [4] published in the Journal of Rheumatology enrolled a total of 48 middle-aged and older adults who did not engage in any exercise. All participants were diagnosed with osteoarthritis. The participants were randomly assigned to a cycling exercise training and swimming group. Exercise training was performed three times a week, 45 minutes per day, at 60-70% heart rate reserve for three months or 12 weeks. 

Results of the study showed significant reductions in stiffness and pain in the joints and physical limitation in both groups. Further, all also reported significantly increased quality of life. Both groups also increased their functional capacity and distance covered during the six-minute walk. There were no significant differences in the magnitude of improvements between cycling and swimming training. 

It should be noted that the most frequently prescribed exercise for those with osteoarthritis is cycling training. However, joint pain and stiffness due to osteoarthritis can be reduced while functional capacity and muscle strength improve with swimming exercise programs. Since swimming is a low-impact activity, it is ideal for middle-aged to older adults with osteoarthritis. 

Meanwhile, a retrospective longitudinal study [5] published in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation journal evaluated the relationship between knee pain, symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, radiographic knee osteoarthritis and history of swimming. Investigators included a total of 2,637 participants who have a mean age of 64.3 years. The participants’ mean BMI was 28.4 kg/m2. There were 44.2% males and 55.8% females. 

The study’s findings revealed that the prevalence of frequent knee pain was 36.4% for those with a history of swimming compared with 39.9% for those with no history of swimming. Only 54.3% in the swimming group had radiographic knee osteoarthritis compared with 61.1% in the non-swimming group. Symptomatic knee osteoarthritis prevalence was also lower in the swimming group (21.9%) compared with the non-swimming group (27.0%). 

Swimming: types, benefits, importance, and research

Since the study was population-based, it was the first to indicate that swimming could potentially improve knee health, especially when swimming is done before age 35 and continues throughout life. Although more prospective studies are needed to examine the relationship between swimming and knee osteoarthritis in older age groups, the findings are reassuring since they showed that swimming could benefit knee health. 

Alleviation of stress and anxiety 

Chronic stress is recognized as one of the significant mental health issues worldwide. Unsurprisingly, exposure to chronic stress can lead to other physical and mental health conditions. Specifically, chronic stress can affect our cognition and brain functioning. Recent studies [6] suggest that chronic stress is linked to psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and major depressive disorders. To treat anxiety and depression, a variety of medications and nonpharmacologic methods have been proposed. One of the nonpharmacologic methods includes exercise. 

Animal studies show that exercise releases hormones that moderate stress and anxiety. In human and non-human studies, swimming can reduce anxiety symptoms, cortisol levels, and inflammatory markers. 

An animal study [7] published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the effects of swimming on corticosterone and anxiety-like behaviours in unstressed and stressed rats. 

Findings indicated that self-paced swimming training could lessen anxiety parameters and concentrations of corticosterone, a hormone associated with stress. Interestingly, exercise can reduce stress-related hormones in both stressed and unstressed rats. In stressed rats, apart from swimming, they needed a recovery period to minimize corticosterone levels. Overall, this animal study demonstrated the effectiveness of swimming exercises in lowering hormone levels associated with stress and reducing anxiety. 

A YouGov poll [8], which Swim England commissioned, examined if swimming can reduce anxiety symptoms amongst 1.4 million adults in Britain. Findings showed that 492,000 participants with mental health conditions reported that swimming reduced the number of their mental health visits to their medical professionals. In addition, more than 490,000 of those surveyed said their healthcare practitioners had advised them to reduce or stop medications for their mental health conditions. They attributed swimming as the reason why they had better mental health and were no longer required to take medications for their mental health conditions. 

The benefits of swimming were also examined during the survey. About 43% of the participants in the YouGov poll who are regular swimmers stated that swimming made them feel happier. Another 26 per cent indicated that swimming helped them feel motivated to complete their daily tasks. Another 15% believed that swimming helped them feel that life is more manageable. 

UK’s chair of the Swimming and Health Commission, Ian Cumming [8], stated, “Physical activity in any form can have a positive impact on a person’s mental health, but swimming is unique because the buoyancy of water ensures everyone can take part at a pace that suits them. It is perfect for people with restricted movement.” 

“Research shows that simply being in water can be restorative, particularly swimming outside. People relax in many ways – some set a target and aim to beat their time, while others prefer a more leisurely swim on their own or with friends. Swimming provides that choice, and if it is regularly prescribed alongside other support forms, swimming could impact wider society.”

Swimming is a sport or exercise that you can continue until age. However, research shows that other forms of exercise benefit the heart and muscles of the body while also improving mood. Hence, you can take up swimming along with another exercise regimen such as dancing, walking, cycling or running. 

Although swimming is an excellent exercise programme and improves your health and mood, it does not do much for your bone health. Hence, many doctors advise those who take up swimming as a hobby and sport to supplement this with strength training and activities such as climbing stairs, gardening, or strength training. Other forms of weight-bearing exercises are also highly recommended to improve bone health. 

How to get started with swimming 

It is easy to get started in swimming. As a recreational and competitive sport, it can be done by young children to older adults. Hence, it fits all age groups, fitness and skill levels. 

You can contact your local public swimming pools and aquatic centres offering swimming lessons for all age groups and fitness levels. Public pools have minimal entry fees and can help you start swimming. 

Here are some general tips for swimming: 

When planning to swim, it is vital to ensure your safety and the safety of your children and others: 

  • Before diving into the pool, ensure the environment is safe for both of you. 
  • Determine where the lifeguards are stationed and ensure the safety of your children. 
  • Use swim paddles or vests for your children. 
  • Make sure to stretch your muscles and warm up your joints before entering the water. 
  • If you are still starting, do your workout sparingly. 
  • Drink regularly and have plenty of fluids. 
  • If you last exercised long ago, consult your doctor before swimming lessons or swimming in local pools. 

Importance of Swimming 

Swimming is best known for improving cardiovascular health and improve mood. It can be done by anyone of all ages and at different fitness levels. 

To reap the benefits of exercise, you do not need to swim long distances or several laps. You can walk through the water since it is safe for your joints and does not have the same impact on your knees as land-based activities such as running and walking. 

You can also tread in water, a fun way to bond with your families and friends while challenging your cardiovascular system. In addition, there are classes such as aqua aerobics and aqua Zumba that increase the resistance of moving in the water. 

Swimming: types, benefits, importance, and research
Photograph: NomadSoul1/Envato

For those who are more adventurous, you can start plyometric exercises in the pool. These exercises increase the body’s power and strength without the risk of overtraining your body. Some examples of plyometric exercises include running underwater with weights. 

Latest research evidence on swimming 

A body of evidence from published studies well supports the benefits of swimming. However, recent studies suggest swimming lessons could significantly impact their cognitive and motor development, especially among babies and young children. 

Investigators from the University of Rome’s Department of Movement, Human and Health Sciences [9] conducted a pilot trial on the effects of swimming on babies’ motor and cognitive development. Investigators recruited 27 babies and randomly assigned them to a 10-week swimming intervention and a control group. 

Results showed that infants in the experimental group demonstrated significant improvements in fine, gross and total motor skills compared with the control group. Likewise, there were also significant improvements in the cognition of the experimental group. Although the study had a very small sample size and would require further validation in more extensive trials, the results are promising since they showed that early swimming training could improve babies’ motor and cognitive skills. 

The benefits of swimming on cognition may also be seen amongst older people. An animal study published in the Physiological Reports journal [10] reported that swimming exercise improves long-term and short-term memories in animal model studies. The animals in the study were subjected to training exercises of 60 minutes per day for five days a week. The animals exercised for a month. Results indicated that both short and long-term memory significantly improved even at seven days of training but plateaued in the following days until 28 days of training. 

The findings of this animal model study could form a basis for the future use of exercise in healthy individuals. 

Take home message 

Swimming is a vital exercise that you can enjoy at any age and fitness level. Start reaping its benefits now by consulting your doctor to determine if it is safe for you to take swimming lessons or engage in swimming activities. 

The many benefits of swimming are well supported in high-quality studies. These include improvements in cardiovascular health, mood, and overall mental health and well-being. Since it is a low-impact activity, it is safe for both young and old and middle-aged people. This type of exercise is highly beneficial for those with osteoarthritis since it does not put weight on the knee joints. 

In young children and babies, it is also reported that swimming can improve both motor skills and cognition. In middle-aged to older adults, swimming can improve short- and long-term memory. 

Finally, swimming improves mood and well-being by reducing hormones related to stress and anxiety. 

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[1] https://ndpa.org/directory-drowning_lit/listing/swimming-and-all-cause-mortality-risk-compared-with-running-walking-and-sedentary-habits-in-men/
|[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4625655/ 
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18759314/ 
[4] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26773104/ 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7166141/
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31039481/ 
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7558513/ 
[8] https://www.swimming.org/swimengland/new-study-says-swimming-benefits-mental-health/ 
[9] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/00315125221090203 
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8191402/ 

Photograph: jacoblund/Envato
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