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A swim-win situation: benefits of swimming

A swim-win situation: benefits of swimming

The three Ps of swimming – physical, physiological and psychological – make it an ideal exercise for people of all ages and fitness levels
While swimming is a full body workout, the different strokes work the muscles differently.
International swimmer Rehan Poncha. Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

When it comes to the pool, most people can’t resist jumping in. There is a certain level of joy we associate with swimming while its health benefits are manifold.

Mixing up the various strokes – the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and the most popular of them all, freestyle – can provide a wholesome workout to the various muscle groups in the body. “The main benefits, to put it in a nutshell, are the three Ps – physical, physiological and psychological,” says Pradeep Kumar, who has coached international swimmers including Olympians.

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It targets all the muscle groups

“Swimming is probably the only activity which has all-around benefits,” says Kumar.

With both the upper and lower body in motion, swimming works the entire body. With the different strokes, the target muscle groups vary too. Experts say that maintaining a schedule incorporating the four major strokes would be akin to hitting the gym and working out the different muscles throughout the week.

“Physically, it involves all major muscles,” adds Kumar. “Swimming is just as effective as running or weight training, perhaps even better. It aids in toning and gaining muscle volume and improving your muscular endurance too.”

Thulasi Haridas, chief coach at the Basavangudi Aquatic Centre in Bengaluru, who coaches both athletes, water polo players and recreational swimmers, explains the way the target muscles get involved in the different strokes.

“It is the muscle groups of the hands and legs, the back and the shoulders which improve when you practise freestyle swimming,” elaborates Haridas. “The chest muscle and the core are of importance in the backstroke. In the breaststroke, the leg and chest muscles are benefitted. The butterfly stroke involves the entire body movement and benefits almost all the muscle groups.”

It is soothing and easy on the joints

Swimming holds an edge over activities such as running or weight training because it can provide a thorough workout without putting an undue and potentially harmful load on the joints and the body.

Kumar emphasises the fact that swimming keeps away the ‘impact stress’ that other workouts can potentially cause. The buoyancy of the water cushions the stress the activity generates. Because of this, swimming and water-based exercises are part of rehabilitation programmes.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ‘water-based exercise can help people with arthritis improve the use of their arthritic joints without worsening symptoms. People with rheumatoid arthritis have shown more health improvements after participating in hydrotherapy (exercising in warm water) than with other activities. Water-based exercise can also improve the use of affected joints and decrease pain from osteoarthritis.’

Haridas, says that swimming works the muscle as hard as any other form of exercise but in a very soothing way that leaves people refreshed, and not burnt out.

Swimming could keep lifestyle diseases at bay

Swimming has both anaerobic and aerobic benefits. It improves lung capacity and enhances blood circulation, both important in improving the overall fitness of the person as well as increasing metabolism.

“Physiologically, it keeps the heart rate up. It has cardiovascular benefits and respiratory benefits, and is a very effective calorie burner,” says Kumar. “From a health point of view, swimming is the best form of exercise. If you swim regularly, you need not do anything else to remain fit. It is so effective, that in many cases you may not need medication if you swim regularly.”

Kumar points out the link between swimming and sugar control. “If those with diabetes swim for an hour or so, it will help regulate the sugar levels. It has an extremely beneficial effect on your heart and lungs and is a very pleasant cardiovascular activity. It is also of great help to people with asthma,” he says.

The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming report, an independent study released by Swimming England, the governing body of the sport in England, elaborates that it is an ideal exercise for people of all ages, including those with health and physical conditions including injuries that require a conservative approach to exercises.

Swimming is a stress buster

A few laps in the pool are known to help shed the day’s load and provide a good night’s sleep. Water has properties that make it a stress buster. Simply splashing or resting in a pool of water is known to increase the blood flow to the brain, thereby relieving stress.

“The resistance created by the water during swimming is also a therapy; water is a therapy which helps cool the mind,” says Dr Prashant Bhimani, a senior consultant psychologist from Ahmedabad, Gujarat. “Usually, I always advise hyperactive kids to go swimming as it helps in channelising their energy and increasing their focus.”

Swimming triggers activity within the brain cells. It is known to have a positive influence on neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and hormones such as endorphins which regulate stress and anxiety response in the brain.

“Due to swimming, endorphins and serotonin are released in the body where the former aids in reducing stress while the latter helps in increasing happiness,” adds Dr Bhimani. “While this is related to the psychological effect on an individual, the body movements made during swimming increase blood flow which in turn helps overall health and longevity.”

The calming effect of swimming is not just confined to the chemical changes it induces in the brain. It has quite a bit to do with the inherent nature of the activity too. The regular and rhythmic movement of the skeletal muscles, and the deep breathing involved in the activity, take the swimmer into a meditative zone.

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