Special Reports

Swimming offers a full-body workout for those want to build strength or cross-train

Alissa Pruett says her frequent swim laps are more than just a workout.

“It’s meditative for me,” she says. “It gives me patience when my body is working through the resistance of the water. When you swim, your thoughts tend to be right in the pool where you are.”

Pruett says that while swimming has always been part of her life, now, during her second pregnancy, she’s back in the pool at Wade King Student Recreation Center at Western Washington University more often for fitness.

“It’s great for circulation and vascular functioning,” says the 35-year-old nurse at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. “It also helps with my strength and stamina, and strengthens my back muscles.”

Doctors and fitness instructors often suggest swimming as good exercise for people who want to get into better shape, or who have injuries or joint problems. That’s because swimming provides resistance and cardio exercise without impact, making the pool a great place to tone muscles and burn calories.

“Swimming will literally work out every part of the body,” says Lori Jacobson, aquatics manager at Bellingham’s Arne Hanna Aquatic Center.

Swimming is also great exercise to build core strength. Jacobson says holding your body horizontally in the water engages abdominal and lower-back muscles, while kicking and arm strokes spread the muscle workout from the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes.

Tish O’Keefe, aquatic director at Whatcom Family YMCA, says she swims at least three times a week, in addition to teaching at least four swim classes per week. She focuses on fitness, not weight loss, with the swimmers she teaches and trains.

“Weight loss is not something we refer to in swimming,” says O’Keefe, who emphasized diet’s connection to shedding pounds. “We talk about redefining muscles.”

In fact, studies have shown a workout’s cooling effect in water can increase a swimmer’s appetite. Still, an after-workout snack might be justified; Jacobson says just 10 minutes of the butterfly stroke in high-intensity laps can burn up to 150 calories.

Many runners, like Pruett, who pound the pavement for the high-impact sport, find swimming to be a good way to cross-train, especially after suffering a running injury. Even people who experience pain while walking because of knee, hip or foot problems can enjoy a solid workout in the water.

“You are working against the pressure of the water,” O’Keefe explains. “Just standing in the water is a workout for your abs.”

A good swimming workout is defined differently, based on someone’s athletic level, but in general Jacobson says an hour swimming laps, counting warm-up and cool-down time, amounts to a a solid workout. And, relaxing in a warm whirlpool or therapy pool afterward helps your muscles recover.

For new adult swimmers, the YMCA and Arne Hanna Aquatic Center both offer beginning classes. While some adults might ask for a private lesson, O’Keefe says many of the Y’s adult classes have just three or four members. The lessons are tailored to each swimmer, who can range from true beginners to those who just need a fresher after years out of the pool.

Kickboards and other implements can help swimmers build stamina and focus on improving their kicking skills. People also can vary their exercise regime with water aerobics or deep-water running, both of which also use the water’s resistance for a low-impact workout.

Pruett says anyone who wants to incorporate swimming into their fitness regime should start with a small goal, then add more laps each time. Her typical workout is about 100 laps. A reward afterward is often a good idea, she adds.

“I would use the hot tub as a reward.”

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