Swimming can be a great workout for lots of different kinds of people: young, old, beginners, those with joint pain, and more.

Swimming can be an excellent hobby — and workout — for people of all ages and fitness levels. It’s low-impact, builds strength and fitness, and is fun. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), swimming is the fourth most popular sport in the United States.

Here’s everything you need to know to get started and get better at it.


According to the definition in the Encyclopedia Britannica, swimming is a sport that includes coordinating arm and leg motions to propel your body through water. Because swimming requires a lot of work to overcome the water’s inherent resistance, it definitely tones your muscles. However, swimming is largely a cardiovascular activity, according to Kristopher Gagne, regional head swim instructor at the Life Time Swim facilities in the Houston area.

Simply splashing around in a pool, lake, or ocean doesn’t automatically mean you’re swimming for exercise. “What separates a swimming workout from a leisurely swim is the structure and goal behind the swim,” says Todd Buckingham, PhD, a competitive triathlete and chief exercise physiologist at The Bucking Fit Life, a holistic fitness, nutrition, and mental health coaching program in East Lansing, Michigan.

When you swim for exercise, you get a total-body workout, which means that most of your muscles are involved. According to Dr. Buckingham, the primary muscles used are the large muscles in your back (latissimus dorsi and trapezius), chest (pectoralis major), shoulders (deltoids), hips (glutes), legs (quadriceps and hamstrings), and midsection (abdominals). 

There are four main strokes used in swimming: backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, and freestyle. Each style requires different muscles to work to varying degrees. “The backstroke, as the name implies, will require more muscles in the back to be used than in other strokes, but for the most part, all stroke styles use similar muscle groups,” Buckingham says.


There are many reasons to take up swimming. Here are a few of the potential health benefits you may experience:

1. Less Joint Pain

As a low-impact activity, swimming is a great exercise option for people with joint problems, especially those who can’t walk, jog, cycle, or use an elliptical machine without discomfort or pain. “The weight of the water helps give resistance to the joint and is a natural way of helping the muscles get the stimulation they cannot tolerate during typical exercises,” says Mark Slabaugh, MD, a board-certified sports medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

 “Joints need motion to produce synovial fluid, which is key to decreasing friction,” Dr. Slabaugh explains.

Research in older adults with osteoarthritis bears this out: Swimming for 45 minutes, three days a week for 12 weeks, led to significant improvements in joint pain, stiffness, and physical limitations, for study participants.

2. Improved Heart Health

Like other types of aerobic exercise, swimming strengthens your heart, which may lower your risk of heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and stroke, Buckingham says.

For example, past research found that an eight-week swimming program lowered indicators of heart disease risk, such as systolic blood pressure (the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats), body fat percentage, and carotid arterial stiffness (the rigidity of the wall in your carotid artery) in a small group of overweight men.

How quickly you see heart-health benefits will depend on how often you swim and how long your sessions typically last. More is definitely better, but even 10 minutes can have a positive impact, Buckingham says.

3. Better Blood Sugar Control

According to the American Diabetes Association, exercise improves insulin sensitivity, so your body is better able to use insulin to take up glucose (sugar) for energy during and after your workout. Research supports these claims: Swimming at a high intensity three times a week improved insulin sensitivity and balanced blood glucose in a group of inactive women. These findings suggest that swimming could potentially reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. And for people with diabetes, swimming may help keep blood sugar in check, a main goal of disease management.

RELATED: Learn More About Why Swimming Is Good for Your Health


Weight loss depends on several factors beyond exercise, but because swimming is a total-body workout, it can be an effective way to support weight loss goals, Buckingham says. In general, the more muscles you engage during a workout, the harder your body has to work, and the more calories you’ll burn.

Research that compared the effects of swimming versus walking on body weight in 116 older women found that after doing three weekly sessions of either walking or swimming at equal intensities (as measured by heart monitors) for a year, the women in the swimming group lost slightly more weight and inches off their waist than the women in the walking group. The swimmers lost roughly 2.4 pounds and nearly 1 inch more off their waists than the walkers.

It’s worth noting that because swimming is not a weight-bearing form of exercise (your body doesn’t have to fight against gravity), other activities that are weight-bearing, like running, can be more effective at burning more calories, Buckingham says.

If you weigh 150 pounds, in 30 minutes you can burn about 216 calories from general swimming (not vigorous) and 360 calories from running at a six-mile-per-hour pace, according to Harvard Medical School. If you swim at a vigorous pace, however, you can expect to burn 360 calories in 30 minutes.

But remember that the best and most effective exercise (for weight loss or any other purpose) is the workout you’ll do and stick with. “If it’s a pleasant experience, it’s got a better chance of becoming part of your lifestyle,” says Mike Koleber, head coach at Nitro Swimming in Cedar Park, Texas, and president of the American Swimming Coaches Association.

And if you have joint pain or another issue that prevents you from running (or doing another weight-bearing activity), swimming is a great way to get in your cardio, Buckingham adds.


To ensure a safe, pleasant experience, there are a few things you should do before getting started. First, consider talking with your doctor before beginning a swimming routine. This is essential if you have a chronic heart or lung condition (like asthma or heart disease) or any other issue that may affect your ability to safely exercise. “Your doctor may want you to do cardio, but they may not want your heart rate to get above a certain level,” Gagne says. Check with your doctor about any limitations or precautions to take when swimming.

Get the Gear

Once you’re cleared for a water workout, you’ll want to get (or look into) the following gear:

  • Find a swimsuit. It should be one you feel comfortable wearing, but avoid baggy styles that will weigh you down in the water, Koleber says.
  • Get swimming goggles. They will allow you to see better in the water and prevent irritating pool chemicals or salt water from getting into your eyes. Try on different models until you find a pair that fits snugly but comfortably. “You don’t want to feel like your eyes are popping out,” Koleber says.
  • Consider purchasing a swim cap. If you’re worried about hair damage from the pool chemicals or you need something to keep your hair out of your eyes, a swim cap is a good addition.
  • Look at other swim accessories. Fins, waterproof headphones, and a safety buoy are helpful ones. Fins can help you work your legs and add propulsion to your strokes, according to U.S. Masters Swimming. Waterproof headphones can be a great option if you enjoy listening to music while you exercise. And a safety buoy is a fluorescent, inflatable device designed to increase your visibility while swimming in a lake, ocean, or river, Koleber says. It can also be used for flotation, if needed. A safety buoy attaches to your waist with a belt and trails behind your feet, without messing with your strokes.

Plan Your Swim Schedule

To reap the most benefits from swimming, you have to do it consistently. Three to four 30-minute sessions per week is a good frequency to aim for if you want to see improvements, Gagne says.

However, if it’s been a while since you’ve been swimming, it might be a good idea to spend some time with a learn-to-swim instructor before striking out on your own. “Getting in a couple of times per week with an instructor is the first step,” Gagne says.

Decide Where You’ll Swim

You’re going to need some water to do your laps in. You can swim indoors or outdoors, depending on your preference and what’s available in your area. Consider looking at health clubs, community centers, and swim schools. U.S. Masters Swimming is a national group that organizes adult swimming group workouts, competitions, and beginner classes. Costs for pool membership and access vary by location.

If weather permits, you may be able to do your workouts in natural bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, and oceans. However, Koleber recommends always bringing a buddy when swimming in open water. Look up water quality in natural bodies of water by state using the CDC’s online search tool. 


If you’re a more advanced swimmer or already exercising at a high fitness level, there are several ways to make a swimming workout more challenging. Try the following:

  • Go farther. One of the easiest ways to progress your swimming workouts is to cover more distance. For example, if you’re used to swimming 1,000 yards, try doing 1,500 yards, Buckingham says.
  • Speed up. Start by recording a baseline of how long it takes you to swim specific distances. Then aim to cover those distances progressively faster each week. How much faster you go will depend on your fitness level and how long you’ve been swimming, Buckingham says. Do it gradually to avoid getting injured or overdoing it. For example, if your typical workout involves three 100-yard bouts in 90 seconds, with 20 seconds of rest in between each, try to shave 10 seconds off of each interval. “You’re still getting the same amount of rest, but you’re doing the intervals at a faster pace,” Buckingham says.
  • Rest less. You can make your workout more challenging by shortening the rest periods between swim intervals. For example, instead of taking 20 seconds of rest in between 100-yard bouts, take 10 seconds of rest. “You’re not swimming the 100 yards any faster, but you’re giving yourself less rest, which makes it harder,” Buckingham says.
  • Add resistance. You can add resistance to your swim workouts with hand paddles, aqua weights, and specialized “drag suits” that weigh you down. However, Buckingham only recommends these measures if you’re an advanced swimmer. “Swimming is hard enough already,” he says. Plus, many of these tools put extra stress on the joints, increasing your risk of injury.

Buckingham recommends only changing one of the variables mentioned above during each workout, if you’re a beginner. If you increase the intensity too much, you may run out of gas before the workout is over or increase your injury risk.


What, when, and how much you eat for swimming will depend on a number of factors, including how long or intense your swim will be, whether you have a sensitive stomach, and when you’re exercising. “It may take a little trial and error, but it’s important to fuel your body appropriately before exercising to ensure you have enough energy to support the workout,” says Mary Wirtz, RDN, a board-certified sports dietitian based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a consultant for Mom Loves Best.

Similarly, you need to figure out the best approach to refueling during (if appropriate) and after your swim (to help with exercise recovery).

Here are Wirtz’s recommendations:

  • If Eating 1 to 2 Hours Before Swimming Have a high-protein, high-carbohydrate, low-fat meal. “Limiting fat is imperative for most people, as fat takes longer to digest and can contribute to abdominal bloating and discomfort,” Wirtz explains. Some meal ideas include a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on wheat bread, a large fruit smoothie with granola and fresh fruit, tuna salad on whole-grain crackers, or cottage cheese with a side of whole-grain crackers and fruit.
  • If Eating 30 to 60 Minutes Before Swimming It’s ideal to have a high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, low-fat snack. Try one of these: a banana with a serving of peanut butter, a small fruit smoothie, wheat bread with peanut butter and berries, low-fat Greek yogurt with sliced banana, or dried fruit trail mix with a few pretzels and nuts.
  • If You’re Planning to Swim for Longer Than 60 to 75 Minutes Keep an electrolyte drink and an easily-digestible carbohydrate snack (like an energy gel, energy bites, or dried fruit) nearby for quick refueling during the workout. However, most beginners won’t be swimming long enough to need a mid-workout snack.
  • Within 15 to 30 Minutes of Finishing Your Swim Consider a carbohydrate-rich snack that contains some protein to help jump-start your recovery. Snack ideas include: 1 cup of chocolate milk with a piece of fruit; a protein shake made with fresh fruit; a protein bar and a piece of fruit; homemade trail mix with dried fruit, pretzels, pumpkin seeds, and edamame; or Greek yogurt with granola. Note: If you’re swimming for 30 minutes or less or eating a meal within an hour of finishing, you may not need a post-workout snack. Listen to your body and how hungry you feel.


Do I need to warm up before a swimming workout?

Warming up before a workout is always a good idea. Taking 5 to 10 minutes to warm up the muscles you plan to use before starting your workout can help loosen your joints and prime those muscles for exercise, Koleber says. Before swimming, perform a few sets of push-ups and planks on dry land, and then spend a few laps swimming at a slow, easy pace to warm up.

How many calories does swimming burn?

The number of calories you’ll burn when swimming varies depending on your age, sex, body weight, and the intensity and duration of the exercise. However, as mentioned above, a 150-pound person may burn 216 calories from 30 minutes of general swimming (not vigorous), according to Harvard Medical School. If that same person increases the intensity, the expected calorie burn can jump to 360 calories in 30 minutes.

How many laps is a good swimming workout?

When you’re first starting out, any number of laps you’re able to do is a good swimming workout. For those who need concrete numbers, however, four laps of any basic stroke is a good distance to start with, Slabaugh says. (For reference, standard-sized pools tend to be 25 yards long, according to U.S. Masters Swimming.) From there, the number of laps you do will depend on your goals, intensity, fitness level, and how much time you have to exercise.

What muscles do you use for swimming?

Swimming is a full-body workout. It works the large muscles in your back (latissimus dorsi and trapezius), chest (pectoralis major), shoulders (deltoids), hips (glutes), legs (quadriceps and hamstrings), and midsection (abdominals), Buckingham says.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t try swimming?

Many groups of people, including beginners, kids, older adults, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions, and those with joint pain or injuries, can all potentially benefit from swimming. However, it’s a good idea to consult with your physician if you have any medical condition or injury that may make exercise — and swimming in particular — unsafe. In addition, Slabaugh recommends avoiding swimming if you’re recovering from surgery, have open wounds, or can’t complete the strokes.

What should I wear for a swimming workout?

A comfortable swimsuit and a pair of goggles may be all you need. However, some people may want to wear a swimming cap to protect their hair from damage from pool chemicals or salt water.

What gear do I need for swimming?

Aside from a swimsuit, goggles, and a swim cap (if you prefer to use one), most other swim gear is optional. However, if you’re swimming in a natural body of water, it’s a good idea to get a safety buoy to increase your visibility and give you something to hang onto if you get tired, Koleber says.

Optional gear includes:

  • Fins These can be great for working the legs and adding propulsion to your swimming.
  • Kickboard Many indoor pools have these available for use. They can help you focus on building kick strength and keep you afloat in the pool.
  • Waterproof Headphones These let you to listen to music while you swim.