Did you watch the swimming events during the 2008 Summer Olympics? Then you, along with millions of other people, probably saw Michael Phelps win an unprecedented eight gold medals. Now the elite athlete wants to keep swimming in the spotlight.
Phelps is off to a strong start. Teens across the country are finding that swimming is fun and an excellent way to stay fit at a low cost. It’s an activity that builds lean bodies with powerful muscles. But you don’t need to compete or swim like a fish to reap the many benefits of swimming.
When you swim, you use almost all the major muscle groups, including the heart. The activity “engages a lot of arm and leg muscles,” says Dr. Michael Joyner, an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. In addition, swimming develops muscle strength and endurance and improves flexibility.
“I like the strength I get from swimming. I have more energy and feel fit,” says Emily M., 16, of Fairbanks, Alaska, who swims on both her school team and a club team.
Swimming can help your lungs work better. “When you swim, you breathe from the diaphragm,” says Dr. Holly Benjamin, a pediatrician and the director of primary care sports medicine at the University of Chicago. To understand why, think about how the diaphragm–a strong, thin muscle below the lungs–works.
As you breathe in, your diaphragm and other muscles contract and air rushes into your lungs. Your rib cage expands, and lung volume increases. When you breathe out, the diaphragm and other muscles relax and lung volume decreases.
Deep breathing means that you breathe from the diaphragm, which increases lung volume. That’s just what you get from swimming, according to Benjamin. “This deep breathing requires the swimmer to concentrate and control his or her breathing,” she says. Better breathing control and increased lung volume help you breathe easier even out of the water.
Add swimming to the list of heart-healthy exercises. This activity makes the organ stronger and more efficient as it works to supply blood to all the exercising muscles and the rest of your body. The heart is a muscle, so exercise is good for it. Furthermore, swimming improves your circulatory system by expanding blood vessels. That allows more blood to circulate and can decrease blood pressure in people who suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure).
In water, you weigh 10 percent of what you weigh on land. That buoyancy makes swimming a super-low-impact form of exercise. Swimmers move against the resistance of the water, which builds strength but with less pressure on joints, muscles, and bones.
This activity isn’t associated with a lot of injuries. It is forgiving because “you have less tension on your muscles, so you have less strain, or pull, on muscles,” says Megan Romano, 17, a top competitive swimmer from Florida who has her eye on the 2012 Olympics.
Swimming speeds up metabolism–your body’s process for turning food into energy-which “can help [keep] you from becoming diabetic or developing high cholesterol,” says Joyner. Increased metabolism may also result in weight loss, but that depends on how many calories you eat and burn. Researchers report that many lap swimmers lose weight or stay the same, and occasionally, they may even gain a few pounds. That’s because muscle weighs more than fat. However, increased muscle, or lean body mass, increases metabolism.
Keep It Fun
Just splashing around won’t provide health benefits. You need to do a real workout, which means swimming laps from one end of the pool or the beach to the other. Swimming can contribute to the 60 minutes of aerobic activity a day that the American Academy of Pediatrics says teens should get.
Instructor Lana Whitehead, owner of SWIMkids USA in Mesa, Ariz., recommends writing goals for each swimming session. For instance, you can pledge to swim five minutes longer than you did last week or try to shave a few seconds off your butterfly stroke. Achieving your goals feels good!
To make swimming laps more fun, some teens play music on a stereo while in the pool or think about their favorite songs. You can also prevent boredom by varying your stroke; incidentally, that helps your fitness because freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke use different muscles. Another way to spice up swimming laps is interval training, in which you swim 50 yards, and then take a 10-second rest. Next, swim 100 yards and rest 10 seconds. Continue this pattern with 150 yards, 200 yards, 250 yards, and 300 yards. Then reverse the pattern.
Where to Swim
Public and private high schools with swimming pools usually offer open pool times. Local colleges and universities may have open pool for a small fee. Check your local recreational parks too. In the warmer months, some cities have temporary “mobile” pools that can be transported from one location to another.
And don’t forget about the natural resources in your area: Oceans, bays, lakes, and rivers can be great places to paddle. Local communities regularly post safety precautions at these sites. Before swimming, always consider riptides, shallow bottoms, and high bacteria count.
Diving In: Places for Classes
Just about anyone can swim. All you need are some lessons and a commitment to doing it at a level that’s right for you. You can find classes at Y’s, recreation centers, and swim schools, as well as through community education programs and your local American Red Cross chapter. Perhaps taking one-on-one lessons or getting involved with a swim team is more your style. Whatever you do, you can enjoy swimming–and staying in shape–for the rest of your life.
Other than a swimsuit, a towel, a pair of flip-flops, and maybe a bathing cap in certain pools, you don’t need much equipment for swimming, it’s a good idea to buy a pair of leakproof goggles. Wear glasses or contacts? You can still keep them on in the water, covered by goggles or a mask.
MORE WATER WORKOUTS
Not ready for the deep end? There are other ways to get fit while you float. Water polo is popular among teens. You can check out water aerobic or low-impact cardio water classes. Other water exercises include kayaking, canoeing, rowing, and diving. Even scuba diving is great for building your lungs.
- Ask students about their favorite warm-weather exercise activities.
- How does swimming help the circulatory system? (It strengthens the heart and expands blood vessels to lower blood pressure.)
- How much aerobic exercise should teens get every day? (60 minutes)
- Besides health benefits, what makes swimming a good choice for exercise? (It’s a cheap activity almost everyone, everywhere can enjoy.)
- Of the other water activities mentioned in the article, which would you enjoy doing for fitness? Why? (Answers will vary.)