Is Swimming Effective for Weight Loss? (Part Two)

Swimming skill affects caloric burn
A reader once wrote me wondering why he was out of breath every time he swam in spite of his regular gym workouts. "Specificity of training" was my answer. You only get good at what you train for. Additionally, I could not determine through e-mail what kind of swimming skills he possessed. You see, the less skilled you are, the more you struggle in the water and the quicker you become tired.

According to the Health Fitness Instructor Handbook, one of the reference manuals for the American College of Sports Medicine, the amount of calories burned during swimming depends "on the velocity of movement and the stroke being used, but it is also influenced by the skill of the swimmer. A skilled swimmer requires less energy to move through the water, so that person has to swim a greater distance than an unskilled person to achieve the same caloric expenditure."

The handbook says that for poor swimmers "the energy cost of simply treading water can be as high as 7.5 calories per kilogram of body weight per minute. Elite swimmers use this same number of calories per minute to swim at 36 miles per minute whereas an unskilled swimmer might require twice that energy expenditure to maintain the same velocity."

On the surface, it would seem to be more advantageous to have mediocre swimming skills to burn more calories but it backfires on you because you tire faster than you can rack up calories. In other words, you burn more calories when you are a novice swimmer but you cannot swim very long or very fast. The more skilled you become, the less calories you burn but you still burn more calories in the long run because you can swim longer and faster before you become fatigued.

Here is the caloric cost of swimming freestyle for one mile for men and women by skill level according to the Exercise and Sports Sciences Review.

Skill Level Women Men
Competitive 180 280
Skilled 260 360
Average 300 440
Unskilled 360 560
Poor 440 720


If you are wondering why women burn less than men, the Fitness Leader's Handbook, another reference manual, says that because of women's "greater buoyancy associated with higher body fatness, women expend fewer calories per mile than men, independent of skill level". People with more fat have an easier time staying afloat. That in turn means fewer calories are burned. This is good news if you are a competitive swimmer so you can reserve your calories to fuel your speed and distance.

The swimmer's V-shaped body
Competitive swimmers usually have a V shaped body with wide shoulders and lats (sides of the upper back) because these are the muscles that produce powerful swimming strokes. Some people tell me they want a body like this while others say they don't want to swim because they are scared they will end up with a swimmer's body. It just goes to show you that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Well, recreational swimmers who are afraid of developing a pronounced V-shaped body have nothing to fear because it requires far more than just thirty to sixty minutes a day of moderate intensity swimming unless they have the genes to increase muscle mass with a minimum of muscular challenge. Competitive swimmers often do several hours of grueling training a day.

Swimming and aqua aerobics
Swimming should not be confused with aqua aerobics or "erect water exercise". The goal in swimming is to reduce the drag or resistance of water and make the swimmer more hydrodynamic. In aqua aerobics, the exercises and equipment are purposely designed to go against the resistance of the water to build muscular strength and cardiovascular stamina. Swimming requires considerable skill while aqua aerobics can be performed even by people who are uncoordinated or non-athletic.

Water walking
If you have joint problems that make walking or running out of the question but you are not a good swimmer and you cannot find an aqua aerobics class near you, consider taking up "water walking". According to the Tufts University Newsletter, water walking done at a brisk pace for at least 20 minutes in chest-deep water while swinging the arms works the heart as well as burning as many calories per minute as walking.

If you want even more of a caloric burn and a greater challenge to the upper body, try deep-water running. You will need a waist flotation device to keep you suspended in neck deep water. You will build more upper and lower body muscular endurance than land based running because the resistance of the water is all around you .

Swimming is still helpful for weight loss
Part of my difficulty in losing weight was that I was using food to combat stress, boredom, depression, sadness, frustration, and anger. Without my realizing it, I was using food to deal with those painful situations. Oftentimes, I was not physically hungry but I was emotionally hungry and since I used the same substance (food) to satisfy both hungers, I could no longer differentiate between the two. I was using food the way a drug addict uses drugs - to run away from reality and avoid facing problems in life. Becoming aware that I was doing this and learning to use non-food substitutes like reading a good book or listening to soft beautiful music played a big role in permanently controlling my weight.

I was willing to lose weight at the expense of my health
Many overweight people find swimming soothing because there is no stress on the joints (with the exception of the shoulders). The water keeps them from overheating and sweating profusely the way land exercises do. Swimming is also a total body exercise that uses both the upper and lower body. In fact, the only exercise that many obese people can realistically do is either swimming or aqua aerobics. Water is the perfect environment for them. Therefore, before you swear off ever getting into the water again, it is important to realize that there are no conclusive scientific studies to prove that swimmers really have bigger appetites or have more body fat because their bodies adapt to prolonged exposure to cold water. Besides, these anecdotal observations are based on elite athletes who swim for hours a day. There may be no connection at all for people who swim recreationally for half an hour to an hour a few times a week in relatively warm water. You may burn fewer calories while swimming compared to running or jogging but those calories are far better than not burning anything at all if you are the type whose joints hurt when you "pound the pavement ".

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