Updated: Jan 11, 2019
“Swimmers have great bodies, so I should probably start swimming to lose weight, right?”
A version of this sentiment flows from the mouths of hyper-dedicated New Year’s ‘Resolutionaries,’ potential triathletes, and the delightfully overconfident who presume swimming is an easy sport.
Swimming for weight loss can absolutely be successful if combined with other lifestyle choices such as nutrition, rest, and periodization of training. Weight loss, however, has become entwined with conflicting advice and profit-minded fads, but the basis of weight loss remains deeply rooted in two options:
1. Consume Fewer Calories
2. Burn More Calories
Now, these two weight loss options become potentially complicated, depending on your individual needs. After all, the “swimmer’s diet,” which looks remarkably close to a level of gluttony, is enjoyed by many competitive swimmers and was even showcased in comedy sketches during previous Olympic cycles.
Sports nutrition is the field dedicated to understanding the evidence-based metabolic needs of athletes; they need to replenish their energy for training rather than cutting/burning calories for weight loss.
How much weight can you lose by swimming? Google “How many calories do you burn swimming,” and you will be prompted with this answer: “A 130-pound person swimming freestyle for one hour will burn 590 calories swimming fast, and 413 calories swimming slower. A 155-pound person swimming freestyle for one hour will burn 704 calories swimming fast, and 493 calories swimming slower.”
Generalized, definitive calorie expenditures do not create an accurate profile for your unique body, movement efficiency, and metabolism.
However, only individual tracking – using applied sport science and/or medical consultation – can provide accurate measures of how many calories you personally burned. That's because gender, hormones, age, genetics, and a host of medical conditions can play into caloric expenditure.
So the only simple, clear-cut statement you can make is that swimming for weight loss is effective. And compared to dry-land exercises, such as walking or running, swimming is effective for weight loss without the impact on your joints and ligaments.
Why is swimming for weight loss so effective? Swimming is a full-body exercise, which can be high or low intensity, and offers variety for sprinting, mid-distance, and endurance training.
Type of movement will impact the potential for weight loss. Fine motor movement, such as moving your fingers to write (or just your thumb in today’s mobile world) is a small caloric expenditure.
What is known as gross motor movement – large movements which incorporate multiple muscle groups – stresses more body systems and can result in greater caloric expenditure.
Swimming utilizes all the major muscle groups of the body in a highly coordinated function. It also relies on the smaller, stabilizing muscles (fine motor movement) to support this coordinated movement.
This collection of movements increases neural stimulation from the brain, blood flow to and from the muscles, immediate energy expenditure (calories burned) in varying degrees based on the structure of the swimming session.
After a swimming session, your metabolism remains elevated. That makes swimming to lose weight a smart strategy … even after you towel off.
So, if you want the chiseled look of a highly competitive swimmer, get ready for all the sacrifices and training techniques those swimmers endure. If you want to try recreational swimming to lose weight, you’re in luck – it’s still a great option!
By Jenni Brozena, MS, CSCS, CES Owner/President of Aqueous www.aqueous.co