When people refer to the health benefits of swimming, different things might come to mind. They might think of its benefits for those recovering from surgery, aiming for weight loss, or seeking aerobic exercise. While all of these are indeed incredible benefits, not everyone realizes that swimming is a true full body sport—affecting the human body's cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous systems, and more.
We've compiled a comprehensive look at how swimming impacts the many important systems in your body and how you can use that knowledge to optimize your health with swimming.
Cardiovascular System: Heart & Blood Vessels
Numerous studies have shown that swimming offers incredible benefits to the cardiovascular system. This system—which consists of your heart, veins, and arteries—performs the vital function of delivering oxygen to your cells and flushing away wastes on the cellular level. When this system malfunctions, the result is the heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the CDC.
Swimming supports cardiovascular health in several ways:
High Blood Pressure
One study showed that swimming was an excellent exercise, specifically for women with a sedentary lifestyle who suffered from mild hypertension (high blood pressure).
Being overweight is one of the main contributors to cardiovascular disease in the U.S. According to Obesity Action, swimming is an "ideal" cardiovascular exercise for weight loss, especially since it doesn't put pressure on the joints of people who might be overweight.
Research has shown that varicose veins are an indicator of heart issues. Basically, venous veins are a sign that the body is unable to circulate blood from the veins in the lower extremities and back to the heart. Swimming can help increase circulation in veins by both lessening the effect of gravity on the lower legs during exercise, and improving overall circulation in the legs. The pressure of the water against muscles in the legs urges the veins to pump blood back to the heart more efficiently.
Lymphatic System: Lymph Nodes & Immunity
Your lymphatic system works quietly and tirelessly throughout your body to eliminate wastes and toxins. This system transports lymphs throughout your body, which contains white blood cells that fight infection; that's why a healthy lymphatic system is pivotal for immunity and overall health.
The tiny lymphatic vessels are quite superficial (right under the skin) which makes them very susceptible to the gentle pressure of water in an aquatic environment like a pool. The gentle pressure of the water against the skin actually stimulates those superficial vessels to greater circulation. In turn, this helps your body eliminate wastes more efficiently and boosts your immune system.
Respiratory System: Lungs & Oxygen
You're probably aware of the function of your respiratory system, whose major organ is the lungs and whose major function is to take oxygen into your body and eliminate carbon dioxide. Swimming works with your respiratory system in the following ways:
Lung Capacity. The process of swimming helps your lungs develop more alveoli, which are the small sacks of air that allow respiration, or the movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide during breathing. This increase in alveoli can mean more efficient oxygen exchange, which helps flood your body with oxygen-rich blood.
COPD. In Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, the lungs have difficulty getting enough air. According to the Lung Institute, swimming can be a gentle and non-invasive exercise for those with COPD with the clearance of a physician.
Lung Efficiency. Because swimming is an aerobic exercise, it actually trains the lungs to work more efficiently. This helps you take deep, healing breaths both in and out of the pool.
Musculoskeletal System: Muscles, Ligaments, and Joints
Th musculoskeletal system is probably the system we're most familiar with, especially when it comes to physical activity. Our muscles generate movement, while our tendons and ligaments act as pulleys on the system and our joints help make movement possible. All together, swimming can be incredible for the entire musculoskeletal system.
The gentle and smooth movements specific to swimming are excellent for joint health. Even for those suffering from arthritis or overuse issues, swimming is an amazing, low-impact exercise that does not put undue pressure on joints like the knees and hips.
Tendons & Ligaments
These tough, fibrous tissues connect muscle to bone (tendons) or muscles to other muscles (ligaments). Swimming is an excellent way to rehabilitate stretched or inflamed tendons (tendonitis) because there are few quick, sudden, or jerky movements which can aggravate the tendon. It can allow you to gently and carefully reestablish range of motion on an injured tendon or ligament.
Swimming is an excellent way to build muscle tone in the body. The movements work every part of your body, though of course some strokes work certain areas more than others. Here's a look at which muscles are worked by which strokes:
Backstroke works a swimmer's pectoral muscles on the chest, and also helps work the muscles of the core. And, true to its name, the backstoke is going to work back muscles like the latissisum dorsi and the rhomboids.
Butterfly strokes work the arms, including the triceps, biceps and shoulder muscles.
Breaststroke works your legs with its powerful kick, firing up your glutes (butt muscles) and hamstrings (back of the leg muscles) in the process.
Nervous System: Parasympathetic Relaxation
The nervous system encompasses two different systems. The central nervous system encompasses your brain and spinal cord, while the peripheral nervous system controls nerves that connect all over your body to help you sense stimuli and interact with the world.
To further divide it up, your autonomic nervous system handles all of your involuntary processes (breathing, blood pressure) and it, too, is split up into two branches: the parasympathetic (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the "fight or flight" impulse in the body, while the PNS is associated with healing, restfulness, and slower heartbeat.
Exercises like swimming build up "parasympathetic tone," which means that the body is more capable of relaxing, healing, and slow heart rhythm in between swims.
Relaxation & Digestion
Slow, calm water activities can also help stimulate the PNS by supporting deeper breaths and relaxation. When your nervous system is in this relaxed state, it leaves you body more capable of good relaxation and calmness - it's also one of the ways that swimming interacts with the body's digestive system.
Potential Healing of Neurons
One exciting animal study showed that rats with peripheral nerve injury significantly improved their healing efforts after moderate swimming. This offers a very exciting glimpse of swimming's possibilities in the field of nerve regeneration.
System by system, swimming has been proven to be an incredible exercise for your entire body. From increasing venous circulation to exciting possibilities in nerve regeneration, swimming packs a punch from your head to your toes. If you're searching for a comprehensive workout, try swimming on for size.