Establishing an effective, sustainable exercise routine is a key component of any weight-loss strategy, says Russell F. Camhi, a primary care sports medicine physician at the Northwell Health Orthopaedic Institute in Great Neck, New York. He’s head team physician at Hofstra University in Uniondale, New York, and an assistant professor at Hofstra/Northwell School of Medicine.
A long-term exercise plan for weight loss should include cardiovascular exercise — which could feature swimming, Camhi says. Swimming provides excellent cardiovascular benefits and the added benefit of being easy on the joints, knees and feet. “(Swimming) is particularly useful for people who have hip, knee or ankle arthritis,” he says. “Walking, running and working out on a treadmill puts a lot of pressure on the joints. A person’s body weight is magnified up to eight times over a single joint when running and going up and downstairs.”
Swimming is a good way to exercise for people of all ages, but it’s an especially good option for older individuals and patients with obesity, because it helps decrease stress on their joints, he says.
Particularly during the hot summer months, when some people may not always feel as motivated to engage in strenuous exercise, swimming and doing water aerobics could be an effective and fun component of a weight-loss regimen.
[Read: HIIT vs. Cardio for Weight Loss.]
How to Lose Weight Swimming
Here are six tips for swimming to lose weight:
1. Kick-start your day with a morning swim.
Swimming in the morning is a great way to jump-start your day — and you don’t have to hit the pool on an empty stomach.
Despite what your mother may have told you about the inadvisability of eating before jumping in the pool or the ocean, it’s safe to eat a light meal or snack before swimming, says Jamie Costello, executive director of fitness with the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami. “There’s been some confusion that skipping breakfast can assist the body in using fat as fuel, but research suggests that it is the total calories consumed and burned throughout the day that ultimately determines weight and fat loss versus the timing of the meals.”
Pritikin suggests splitting up breakfast by consuming half of a banana or a half cup of oatmeal with berries to break your overnight fast 15 to 20 minutes before exercising strenuously in the morning. “After the workout, a breakfast of egg whites and veggies is a great way to provide the muscles with the necessary protein (they need).”
2. Pick up the pace and incorporate strenuous swimming.
Running a mile burns more calories than walking that distance. Similarly, swimming at a faster pace burns more calories than swimming slowly and steadily, says Michele Smallidge, lecturer and director of the B.S. Exercise Science Program from the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut.
“The increased effort in ‘picking up the pace’ or increasing effort will burn more calories within that unit of time.” She suggests developing a structured plan, perhaps swimming with a group or working with a coach, to push past physical and mental barriers to swimming harder and faster.
[SEE: 8 Signs You’re Overtraining.]
3. To keep it interesting, vary your swim routine.
As with any form of exercise, if you swim with the same level of intensity over a period of weeks or months, your weight-loss efforts may plateau, Smallidge says. Swimming the same distance at the same pace also could produce boredom, which can make it difficult to remain motivated in the long run.
Alternating your swim routine is a great way to keep things interesting in the water and breakthrough weight-loss plateaus, Smallidge says. For example, in the middle of your usual routine, you might mix in a lap or two during which you swim as fast as you can. Or you could swim with a partner and have occasional races. Joining a water aerobics class is also a great way to vary your aquatic exercise routine.
Working out with water weights is another fun way to vary your swimming routine, says Tyler Fox, head swimming coach at Life Time, an athletic resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. “As you press the weights through the water, the resistance activates your muscles similarly to how resistance bands do on land,” Fox says. “You can perform many of your favorite moves in the weight room using water weights in the pool. You can develop strength and work your cardiovascular system at the same time. For a fun change of pace, pick a few of your favorite dumbbell exercises and work them out in the water between reps of your swim workout.”
4. Add a swim class to the mix.
Swimming is a great cardiovascular activity because it activates so many muscle groups at the same time, Camhi says. The more muscle groups that are active during exercise, the more the body will burn energy, which can help you lose weight.
If you’re new to swimming or used to swim and but are rusty in your strokes, taking a swim class to learn or brush up on proper techniques can help you be more efficient and get the most from your aquatic workouts. Most local recreation centers, the YMCA and the American Red Cross, offer swimming courses.
5. Swim as often as you like.
There’s no hard and fast rule dictating how often you should swim as part of a weight-loss effort. What’s clear is that the recommended amount of exercise to maintain good health is at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, or a combination of the two, Smallidge says. Increasing the duration of moderate or vigorous exercise performed each week is required if weight loss is the goal.
So, you can attain your minimal amount of cardio by — depending on whether you’re going at a strenuous or moderate pace — swimming three to five times a week for 25 minutes or so at a time. Keep in mind that you can swim daily because this form of exercise isn’t hard on your knees, joints or feet. Also, take note that engaging in strength training at least twice a week will bolster your weight-loss and fitness efforts.
6. Evaluate your dietary habits.
When he was training for Olympics swimming events, 23-time gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps consumed about 10,000 calories a day, which helped him maintain a lean physique. Of course, he also swam hard and fast for several hours every day.
Non-Olympians who are swimming to lose weight will need to be mindful of their eating regimen. As with any weight-loss effort, reducing calorie intake while engaging in a regular swimming routine can help you drop pounds.
To lose weight, Smallidge recommends eliminating or cutting down on high-calorie processed foods, including:
— Fruit juice.
— Processed meats (bacon, cold cuts and sausage, for example).
Instead, increase your intake of healthy whole foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables and lean sources of protein, like beans, nuts and seeds. “Calories do count, so be conscious of portion control even with whole natural foods,” Smallidge says.
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Update 07/19/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.