January 3, 2020

The pool's not frozen: Swimming for exercise

Madison, Wis. — Americans exercise less in the winter than they do in the summer.

According to Gallup, "Exercise follows a seasonal trend in the U.S., with more Americans saying they work out in the summer and less in the winter. The difference in frequent exercise during summer and winter months is typically about 7 percentage points."

No wonder. Outdoor winter exercising means layering up to counter cold temperatures and harsh winds, decorating yourself in reflective gear to make yourself seen in the dark, and taking extra precautions to avoid slips that can lead to injury.

UW Health Fitness Center fitness supervisor Kate Hemesath points to the pool as an option for people who want to stay fit during the winter.

A healthy alternative

Swimming options from UW Health:

  1. Take an aquatics class

  2. Train for high-level swimming

  3. Sign up for lessons

"Swimming is great cardiovascular work," Hemesath said, "and it's also great for your core, posture and strength."

Pool work can also be a beneficial diversion for athletes whose bodies may be tired of the repetitive movements that running or their chosen sports impose.

"It's good to switch up your workout routine, because different movements keep your body guessing and burn more calories in the process," Hemesath said. "If you run a lot or are playing a competitive sport, getting in the pool can help your body recover."

Refining your stroke

But the benefits of swimming can be mitigated by poor form, which leads not only to a less efficient workout but also can put shoulders at risk for injury. Hemesath recommends checking in with a qualified swimming instructor to make sure your stroke is solid.

"You want to keep a high elbow, but a lot of people will rotate their whole arm, which can cause shoulder impingement," Hemesath said. "It's also important to get a good roll left and right, so you don't strain your neck when you breathe."

The Fitness Center at Research Park, where Hemesath teaches, offers individual instruction and group lessons for people looking to tighten up their form.

"If you want to work on technique, you can zone in on different drills," she said. "Our coaches are great at pointing out stroke flaws and recommending different drills to correct them."

One recommendation they commonly give would seem obvious for any swimmer interested in avoiding drowning, but Hemesath said many inexperienced swimmers don't breathe while in the water or hold their head above water for their full strokes.

"That drops the back part of your body down," she said. "You don't want to drag yourself through the water. You should keep your head down and breathe consistently."

Once you're in the water, it's up to you to determine how fast and how far you want to go. Hemesath advocates for a slow build: "Focus on your technique before you start pushing it too hard," she said, adding that it's perfectly fine to take breaks between laps. You can also focus your swimming workout on a certain part of your body by, for instance, squeezing pull buoys between your legs to emphasize the upper body or leaning on a kickboard to work the lower body.

Non-lap swimming options

For those who aren't interested in lap swimming, warm water pools offer a variety of exercise options. Individual exercisers can grab a noodle — a pliable length of foam that lets you float — and cobble together a rigorous core workout.

And many people whose joints ache from arthritis enjoy the slower, soothing movements of classes such as Arthritis Plus, Aqua Ai Chi and Aqua Yoga, which can increase range-of-motion, flexibility and balance.

"Those classes can serve as stress relievers, as forms of relaxation, as well," Hemesath said. "With the more meditative activities, the benefits are more than just physical."