Swimming for Weight Loss: A Complete Guide with Tips

Swimming is an effective exercise to burn calories and reach your weight loss goals even with 30 minutes four to five days a week.

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by
Sarah Zimmer, PT, DPT
— Signos
PT, DPT
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 19, 2024
July 18, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

When most of us think about exercise for weight loss, we think about high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or endless hours at the gym. However, many low-impact activities are very effective for weight loss and overall health. 

Swimming is a fantastic exercise that offers numerous benefits for shedding pounds and building fitness, managing blood sugar levels, reducing stress relief, and so much more. If your goal is weight loss, read here about the benefits of swimming, the best types of swim strokes,  and valuable tips for beginners to get started today.

Benefits of Swimming

Swimming offers many benefits, making it ideal for weight loss. It targets every muscle of your body, provides aerobic exercise, and torches calories, all while being safe for your joints. Here are the benefits of swimming you may want to know:

  1. Low impact: Unlike high-impact activities like running, swimming is gentle on the joints. It reduces the risk of injury and is an excellent option for individuals with joint pain or arthritis.
  2. It’s easy to get started: All you have to do is find a swimsuit, goggles, and a pool. You also don’t need to know any of the strokes to get a good workout. Try walking or aerobics classes that get your heart rate up and use the resistance of the water. 
  3. Burns a significant amount of calories: The exact number of calories burned depends on factors like intensity, duration, body weight, and current fitness level. On average, a 30-minute swim session can burn approximately 200 to 300 calories while increasing your metabolism for hours afterward, enhancing the body's ability to burn calories even at rest.
  4. Improved Cardiovascular Health: Swimming is a form of cardiovascular exercise that increases your heart rate and improves lung capacity. Regular swimming sessions can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, and improve overall cardiovascular health.3
  5. It’s accessible and fun: Many public pools offer cheap entry fees and “open swim” times for those who don’t want to join a team or a class. Swimming also provides a great workout within 15 to 20 minutes, making getting started much easier. 

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Can Swimming Help You Lose Weight?

The short answer is: yes! Swimming is a full-body workout that simultaneously engages multiple muscle groups, leading to increased calorie burning during and after exercise. The resistance of the water adds an element of intensity to your movements, making every stroke a challenge that requires strength and effort. 

Swimming is considered a low-impact exercise that puts much less stress on your joints. This makes swimming an excellent option for individuals with joint pain, those who have never exercised, or those starting to exercise after a long time away

Lastly, you’ll find that even just 15-20 minutes of swimming gets your heart rate pumping fast, leading to improved cardiovascular health, increased calorie expenditure, and an increase in your metabolism. Your body will continue to burn calories even after finishing your swim session due to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which contributes to ongoing weight loss efforts all day.

If your main goal is to lose belly fat specifically (which is different from weight loss), try swimming as part of your exercise routine. Research has found swimming to be just as effective and sometimes more effective than land-based exercise (i.e., walking) for body fat redistribution, weight loss, and insulin levels.1,2  However, swimming is a full-body activity, and fat loss will happen in more areas than just your belly. Focusing on body composition is more realistic and will help you reach your weight and fat loss targets. 

Four Best Swimming Strokes for Weight Loss 

Swimming offers a variety of strokes, each with its unique form and benefit. Here are the top strokes that can aid in weight loss:

  • Breaststroke: With its slower pace and easier form, it is great for beginners and those with joint pains. It is also called “frog stroke” because the arms and legs move in circular motions away from your body.  It engages the chest, back, arms, and legs, making it an effective full-body workout.
  • Backstroke: This stroke focuses on the upper body, particularly the back, shoulders, and arms. It can help improve posture, strengthen muscles, and burn calories. Incorporating backstroke intervals into your workout routine adds variety and ensures a balanced approach to your swim workouts.
  • Freestyle: Also known as front crawl, freestyle is the fastest and most efficient stroke. It engages multiple muscle groups, especially the core, arms, and legs, making it a great choice for burning calories and toning the entire body.
  • Butterfly: Despite being a more challenging stroke, the butterfly stroke is an excellent calorie burner. It targets the chest, shoulders, back, and abs while providing a higher intensity that you can use as intervals during your swimming sessions. 

How Much Do You Have to Swim to Lose Weight?

The amount of weight you will lose from swimming depends on the intensity of your workouts, the duration, and frequency of your sessions, and your traits (i.e., sex, fitness level, health history, etc.).  Generally, a consistent swimming routine combined with a balanced diet can contribute to weight loss.

Consider that, on average, it takes a deficit of about 3500 calories to lose one pound of body weight. If you aim to lose 1 pound per week, you must create a weekly caloric deficit of approximately 3500 calories through diet and exercise. An easy way to think about this is by creating a calorie deficit of about 500 calories daily. Swimming for 30 minutes at a moderate effort burns about 200 to 300 calories. Knowing this, you would need to reduce your calorie consumption by about 200 calories to hit your daily 500-calorie deficit goal. 

Remember that weight loss is a gradual process, and it's essential to maintain a healthy and sustainable approach. Consistency and patience are key. The amount of swimming required to lose weight depends on your circumstances. However, incorporating swimming into a well-rounded fitness routine and maintaining a calorie deficit can contribute to successful weight loss.

What Does a Great Swimming Workout for Beginners Look Like?

For beginners, starting with a structured and gradual swimming workout is important to build endurance and skill while preventing injury. Try this swimming workout plan to help you get started:

Warm-Up: Perform a few minutes of gentle stretching and warm-up exercises (i.e., arm swings, leg swings, shoulder rotations, and light jogging in place). 

5-minute Freestyle Swim: Focus on maintaining proper technique and a steady pace while taking necessary breaks.

5-minute Kickboard Laps: Hold the kickboard in front of you while kicking your legs and not rotating your trunk. This drill helps to improve leg strength, core strength, and technique. Perform four laps (about 50 meters), with 30 seconds of rest between laps.

5-minute Backstroke Swim: Keep your body aligned and core muscles engaged. It is helpful to stare at a line on the ceiling to help maintain a straight path. 

5-minute Breaststroke Swim: Focus on your arm pull and frog kick legs. 

Short Intervals: Swim four laps at a challenging pace, with a 30-second rest between each lap. Push your intensity, but don’t forget good technique and breathing. 

5-minute Cool-Down swim: Gradually slow your pace or walk in the pool. This helps to lower your heart rate gradually and allows your muscles to recover.

As a beginner, listening to your body and taking breaks whenever needed is essential. As you become more comfortable and proficient, you can increase the duration and intensity of your swimming workouts.

Tips For Swimming For Weight Loss

If you are considering jumping in the pool to start your weight loss journey in the pool, then check out these tips for how to get started ASAP. 

  1. Start slow: Start with shorter swim sessions and gradually increase your time and intensity. This approach allows your body to adjust to the demands of swimming, preventing injuries and excessive fatigue.
  2. Swim in the morning: Research has found exercise performed in the morning can be more effective for controlling appetite and aiding in weight loss for inactive, overweight individuals. Swimming in the morning can be a great way to wake up and start your day.4  
  3. Try different strokes: Each stroke will have a different intensity level due to the nature of its technique. Try more than one stroke to add variety and intervals to your training. 
  4. Up the intensity: You can increase the intensity of your swimming workout by increasing the speed or length of the workout or trying a harder stroke like the butterfly stroke. 
  5. Try intervals: Interval training (HIIT) is effective for weight loss and increasing post-exercise calorie burn. Use intervals of speed or changes in stroke pattern to add intervals to your workout. 
  6. Swim four to five days a week: Consistency is one of the most crucial aspects of any successful weight loss program. Swimming four to five days a week will help you stay consistent and hit your weight loss and exercise goals. 
  7. Add a kickboard or water weights: Resistance-based exercise is important for muscle-building, weight loss, and blood sugar control. Using a kickboard or adding water weights can help add extra resistance to your swim session. 
  8. Prioritize nutrition: Eating a healthy, balanced diet is as important for weight loss and general health as exercise. Make sure to prioritize eating enough high-quality carbohydrates, fats, and proteins throughout the day to help keep your blood sugar balanced as well as to help fuel your exercise appropriately. 

Learn More About How to Achieve Better Health Through Exercise with Signos’ Expert Advice.

If you have more questions on improving your health, fitness, and nutrition, seek the expert advice of the Signos continuous glucose monitor and Signos team. A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can give you the insights to make smarter nutrition and exercise choices. The Signos app provides a unique, personalized program to help you lose weight and reach your health goals. Take this quiz to see if Signos is a good fit for you and reach your goals faster than ever before.  

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References

  1. Gappmaier, E; Lake, W; Nelson, A G; Fisher, A G. (2006). Aerobic exercise in water versus walking on land: effects on indices of fat reduction and weight loss of obese women. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; 46(4): 564-569.
  2. Kay L. Cox, Valerie Burke, Lawrence J. Beilin, Ian B. Puddey. (2010). A comparison of the effects of swimming and walking on body weight, fat distribution, lipids, glucose, and insulin in older women—the Sedentary Women Exercise Adherence Trial 2. Metabolism; 59(11): 1562-1573. 
  3. Lazar, J. M., Khanna, N., Chesler, R., & Salciccioli, L. (2013). Swimming and the heart. International journal of cardiology, 168(1), 19–26.
  4. Z. Alizadeh, S. Younespour, M. Rajabian Tabesh, S. Haghravan. (2017). Comparison between the effect of 6 weeks of morning or evening aerobic exercise on appetite and anthropometric indices: a randomized controlled trial. Clinical Obesity; 7(3): 157-165.
  5. Thornton, M. K., & Potteiger, J. A. (2002). Effects of resistance exercise bouts of different intensities but equal work on EPOC. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(4), 715-722.

About the author

Sarah is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, graduating from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2017.

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