When I started training for my first ever half ironman triathlon a few years back, I would say that swimming was my weakest link. I started swimming as a young adult and my training was only for recreation. The half ironman marathon was when I started getting serious with it.
During this time, I realized that swimming is indeed one of the best exercises you can do not only physically but mentally. It’s great for any level: beginners, recovering athletes, or recreational purposes. It’s low impact which is good for heavier built individuals who are looking to shed some pounds but can’t do it through the gym.
I feel like it’s the most relaxing form of exercise. Relaxation and exercise are two words that don’t go together but it is possible when you’re in the pool. This is why a lot of athletes and fitness buffs recommend swimming to be incorporated in your workout routines.
One study conducted by The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that swimming is one of the most effective exercises that can help you burn more calories compared to any other sport. There are a lot of ways on how it can do this: your stroke, keeping your body warm in the water, as well as the resistance of the water.
Below, I’ve listed down 5 reasons why swimming burns more calories. If you’re interested in a fun and relaxing workout that will give more back every minute, keep on reading and let me know in the comments section what you think.
5 Reasons Why Swimming Burns More Calories
1. Swimming is a full-body, low-impact workout
There’s a lot of negative connotation around the word low-impact: not as effective, not as high in calorie burn, or doesn’t help build muscle. But with swimming, it’s actually one of its strengths. Being a low impact exercise only means that you can jump in a pool even while you’re on recovery from an injury or if you hit the age where arthritis starts to bother you.
The great thing about it is that it is still super effective. Recreational swimming for an hour helps you burn around 500 to 550 calories. That will also still be dependent on your weight, the type of strokes you are doing, how fast you are, and the intensity of each lap. Just imagine how you can burn as much as 900 calories within an hour of intense training.
Not only that, even if you’re only doing some relaxed breaststroke laps or intense butterfly sessions, you are still targetting almost all major muscles in your body as you try to execute your movement while keeping afloat.
2. Each Stroke Helps Burn More Calories
While there are a lot of factors to be considered when you’re trying to determine how much calories you’ll burn in the water, each stroke can offer a different benefit to help you maximize each swim session. This way, you get to burn the highest number of calories in a short amount of time.
Let’s say that you are around 63 to 64 kilograms coming into the pool. A different stroke will have a different hit on your body each time. But to give you an average figure, here’s how much you can burn per stroke:
Relaxed Treading: an average of 240 calories per hour
Intense Treading: an average of 310 calories per hour
Relaxed Backstroke: an average of 340 calories per hour
Intense Backstroke: an average of 410 calories per hour
Breaststroke: an average of 340 calories per hour
Relaxed Freestyle: an average of 370 calories per hour
Moderately-Relaxed Freestyle: an average of 530 calories per hour
Intense Freestyle: an average of 630 calories per hour
Butterfly: an average of 880 calories per hour
Notice how I was very keen to note ‘an average of’. This is because intensity plays a major factor in each stroke. If you can’t keep the intensity at a constant, then the calories burned will also fluctuate.
For example, you want to burn the most calories, and based on the information I gave above, doing the butterfly stroke will give you that. But butterfly after butterfly for every lap isn’t just realistic. You’ll get burned out after just 15 minutes of doing that. So, you want to do something that’s a bit sustainable like incorporating butterfly to breaststroke sessions. That’s more doable and you’ll surely keep your intensity for a longer time.
3. The Afterburn Effect
Swimming is one of the most effective exercises not only while you’re doing it, but also after. This is the principle of the afterburn effect. Basically, you are keeping the calories burning at a certain rate even after the workout is over. Sounds amazing, right?
Officially, this principle is called the EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Cardio and resistance training programs are usually what triggers the afterburn effect, but it also still depends on the intensity of the workouts. You’ll also need to factor in how long you’ve been doing it. But the key-to-note is that not all exercises trigger the afterburn.
Fortunately, swimming triggers EPOC to happen with the amount of oxygen you need to help your body restore and return to it’s normal, pre-exercise state. Holding your breath underwater puts your body in a bigger oxygen-deficit compared to other pavement exercises which will then intensify your workouts more and help trigger the afterburn.
Turning your swimming session into an intense HIIT training can enable the afterburn effect. Alternate breaststroke and intense freestyling each lap. Then aim to do this continuously for about 20 minutes maintaining the intensity of each stroke. The major advantage of swimming is it can easily trigger the afterburn compared to other exercises.
4. Swimming is a form of strength training
Another reason why you burn more calories in the pool is that it’s also a form of resistance training. Even just walking around in the water, you’ll feel like you’re carrying extra weight in your body from it. This is actually likened to weight lifting and is one of the reasons why swimming is a great overall body exercise.
To put things into perspective, walking on water is like walking on the pavement with ankle weights strapped on to you. Water is way, way denser than air. This is very important to note because it’s one of the reasons why swimming burns more calories overall than hiking or running.
The water’s extra resistance enables your bodies to exert more effort, keeping your heart rate up, thus helping you burn more calories. After a few laps in the pool, you’ll feel like you just came out of leg day or upper-body workout day. It doesn’t seem like much when you’re in the pool but feels totally heavy once you’re out.
One tip that experts recommend is to increase your speed as you do more laps. This way your heart rate gradually increases which is the healthy process and you eventually spend more energy. For the best results, I would also recommend swimming at least 3x a week for about 45 to 60 minutes.
5. Aids in the strengthening of bones
As you grow older, your bones literally start to thin out. This is why older people are prone to osteoporosis and other bone-related diseases. There are only a few exercises that are safe on your bones and will help fight against thinning it out… and you guessed it, swimming is one of them.
As swimming is low-impact it places less stress on your bones and more pressure on the muscles. The pulling of the muscles around the bones is enough to help you rebuild your bone density and simply strengthen it.
Under the water, you’ll also be able to exercise even when you’re just recovering from injury. I remember tripping during my last marathon, and I only felt the pain after the adrenaline died down. I couldn’t walk properly for a few weeks and I was a bit reluctant to go back to running or biking. Swimming was my only option and I discovered that it is very therapeutic for the bones, and that’s where my starting point to recovery was.
When you have strong bones and are able to recover quickly from injuries, then you’ll be able to go back to your normal routine faster to burn the calories that you are targetting. Stronger bones tantamount to more movement and more exercises, therefore, more calorie-burning.
When I was a younger kid I used to always swim a lot and it became one of my passions. Now that I’m swimming competitively for Ironman I can tell how much more enjoyable it is once you get good at it, much like running and cycling. Out of the three I’d say that swimming is the most low-impact if you’re trying to lose weight because gravity is supporting you in the water and your knees and joints won’t feel the pain the same as smashing the pavement running or cycling.
Swimming has a lot of advantages versus other exercises and you can reap more benefits from it if you do it with the proper form, intensity, and duration. It strengthens your muscles, heart, and bones all the while moving your whole body. What more can you ask for from a workout? Also if you use a smartwatch for swimming you can calculate how much calories you’ve burned per session!
Not only that, but it is also a pleasurable and social workout. In the pool, you are both relaxed and focused, spent, and energized. The water has a lot of therapeutic effects on a person, and it’s also one of the most effective ways to keep yourself healthy. And fortunately, nowadays, swimming pools are more accessible than ever.
I would like to hear your thoughts about incorporating swimming into your workout program. Are you pondering about visiting your clubhouse soon? Let me know in the comment section below.
Marko Rakic is a trail runner and fitness enthusiast from Sydney, Australia. He is the lead writer for The Ultimate Primate and believes the best way to live a happy life is to take a holistic approach to fitness and health.