Is Swimming the World’s Best Exercise?

By Jim Thornton |

If you want to add years to your life and life to your years, it’s time to take the plunge.

swimming for health

Think the fountain of youth is a myth? Not so fast. Researchers at the University of South Carolina department of exercise science have uncovered evidence that it may be quite real.

The wrinkle: You don’t drink it. You exercise in it.

In a long-term study between 1970 and 2005, researchers analyzed health data from 40,547 men, ages 20 to 90. At the beginning of the study, each volunteer was assessed on a variety of physiological and behavioral measures: lipid levels, blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular status, smoking, alcohol use, and exercise habits.

All told, 15,883 of the men reported engaging in no exercise at all. Another 3,746 walked regularly; 20,356 jogged; and 562 stayed fit by swimming. The researchers followed each group’s respective fate for an average of 13 years. By 2008, some 3,386 overall had died. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Reaper took its greatest toll on the sedentary guys, 11 percent of whom had succumbed. Walkers fared better—just under 8 percent died. Joggers did better still, with a death rate of 6.6 percent. The real surprise, however, occurred in the swimmers. Less than 2 percent had perished by the study’s end.

Steven Blair, P.E.D., lead researcher of the study, cautions against overstating the results because the number of swimmers in the study was relatively small compared to the other groups. “Swimmers did have the lowest death rate, about 50 percent lower than the other activity groups,” he says. “Still, I’m unwilling to go out on the limb too far and declare that swimming is actually better than running in reducing mortality risk.

“I think the main message,” he continues, “is that swimming appears to have definite survival benefits.”

Swimming in Health Benefits

Bragging rights aside, swimming does have advantages over land-based exercise. Chief among them: low injury rates.

About 65 percent of runners will suffer a sidelining injury each year, according to a report in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Tennis, dancing, weight lifting, and walking have slightly lower injury rates. Swimming, by contrast, doesn’t even make the top 10—which is why so many exercise physiologists tout it as an ideal lifelong sport.

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Provided you practice good technique, swimming is an extremely forgiving form of exercise, says Joel Stager, Ph.D., director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University. “Working out in water is largely non-impact,” he says. “There isn’t nearly as much pounding or wear and tear on the joints as there is in running.”

For some people, such joint-friendliness can mean the difference between staying active and hardly moving at all. Patients with severe arthritis, congestive heart disease, or morbid obesity may find even slow walking too painful or difficult. Not so in your local swimming hole, thanks to the buoyancy of water.

How You Can Get Started

You don’t need to be Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky to get a big boost from exercising in the water. In fact, you don’t even need to swim.

SilverSneakers Splash, for example, is a water-based fitness class designed for all skill levels, even non-swimmers. It’s available nationally at select gyms, YMCAs, and rec centers, which often offer other water-based programs as well. The Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program, for instance, is a pool fitness class shown to boost muscle strength and relieve pain.

People with arthritis or pain aren’t the only ones who can benefit from water exercise. Doing at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise—like water aerobics—can help protect you against heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Bonus: It can improve your mood.

The Ultimate Lifelong Sport

Of course, actual swimming provides plenty of benefits, too, and in some cases an astonishing level of physiological upgrade. U.S. Masters Swimming is a nationwide community of nearly 60,000 adults committed to swimming for fun and fitness. A good number of these swimmers race in age groups that range in five-year increments from 19 to 24 all the way to 100 to 104.

These competitive swimmers have attracted research interest because they appear to be trailblazers for optimal aging. A study from the University of Michigan School of Pharmacy, for instance, looked at hypertension in 1,346 masters swimmers compared to age- and gender-matched folks from the general population. The swimmers, they found, were more than twice as likely to be free of high blood pressure as their landlubber peers. And the swimmers who did have high blood pressure did not need to take as much medication to keep it under control.

In other work, Stager and his colleagues assessed biological markers of aging in 172 masters swimmers attending a national competition. Though this number likely included some of the top adult athletes in the country, their health advantages over their peers in the general population were nevertheless eye-opening:

  • Their lung function was 15 percent better than age-predicted values.
  • Their total cholesterol levels were eight to 10 percent lower than non-swimmers, and their HDL (often called “good”) cholesterol was higher.
  • They had bigger and stronger muscles for their age group.

“Masters swimmers,” concludes Stager, “appear to maintain a higher level of functioning, independence, and quality of life as they age.”

The takeaway for those interested in adding years to their lives and life to their years: It’s hard to find a better exercise than swimming. Even if you’ve been waylaid on the couch for years, it’s not too late to take the plunge.

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