Simplify your workout with lap swimming

Everyone likes a bargain, and lap swimming is a good deal when it comes to exercise. Swimming is a remarkably effective workout because it combines three important types of exercise in one: aerobics, stretching, and strengthening. “Simply keeping yourself afloat activates the core muscles in your back and abdomen. And you have to move all of your muscles to swim,” says Leigh de Chaves, a physical therapist and clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. (She also swam competitively in college.)

Are you a good candidate for lap swimming?

Consider lap swimming if you’re generally healthy, you’re a good swimmer, and your doctor says it’s okay. It’s no problem if you’re not a fan of the crawl: “Any stroke is fine. The breast, side, and back strokes are often favored because a lot of people don’t like putting their face in the water, like you have to do with the crawl,” de Chaves says.

However, lap swimming might be not be doable if you have an underlying condition, such as heart disease or a seizure disorder, that puts you at risk for a life-threatening event in the water. You may also need to skip lap swimming if you’re not strong enough to climb in and out of the pool easily. And you should be careful if you have injuries to your shoulders or neck. Lap swimming may increase your pain.

Start your lap swimming routine slowly

A green light for a lap swimming routine doesn’t mean you should start with 20 laps. Ease into it. “Focus on the amount of time you spend swimming, at first. For example, swim for five or 10 minutes, a few times per week. Gradually increase the amount of time each week, and note how many laps you can do within that time. Eventually, set goals to increase your speed by doing more laps in your set time, so that you can measure your progress,” de Chaves explains.

A big payoff

Once you’re in the swim of things, you’ll notice lots of benefits to lap swimming. It’s easy on the joints, thanks to buoyancy in water, and it has a meditative quality that forces you to focus on your movement and breathing.

Lap swimming also

  • improves endurance and cardiovascular health
  • helps lower blood pressure
  • increases flexibility
  • helps you control your weight
  • boosts your balance
  • reduces fall risk
  • helps sharpen thinking
  • helps reduce stress.

Some dos and don’ts for lap swimming

De Chaves points out that it’s important to warm up your muscles before diving into a lap swimming workout. All it takes is a few minutes of gentle paddling, and then static stretches of your shoulder and leg muscles.

Some other dos and don’ts:

  • Do wear nonslip shoes or sandals when walking on the pool deck.
  • Don’t forget to apply sunscreen if you’re swimming outdoors.
  • Don’t forget to stay hydrated before and after a workout.
  • Don’t skip stretching your muscles after lap swimming. You’ll want to stay flexible so you can get back in the pool.

For the nonswimmers in the pool

If you’re not a lap swimmer, you can still benefit from aquatic exercises — exercising in the shallow end of a pool. You might take a class with a trainer who leads a group through a set of exercises with special water weights or flotation devices (like a pool noodle). Or you can simply try water walking; working against the resistance of the water is good for your muscles and bones.

“If you have balance problems, it’s a good idea to exercise with a friend who can assist you. I also recommend wearing a buoyancy belt around your waist to keep you upright,” de Chaves advises.

Look for aquatic exercise classes — such as strengthening or aerobics — at the local YMCA, a fitness center, or a community center.

Related Information: Starting to Exercise


  1. Paul Tagney

    At age 73, I try to swim laps 2-3 times a week.
    I swim always in the slow lane, often treading water in the deep end, or with my head on the edge of the pool in the shallow end, I do the equivalent of stationary biking.
    When actually lapping, it’s breast stroke, side stroke, or back strokes, as you suggested.
    When I go into the pool, I stay in for 1 hour, enjoying the above mentioned combos.
    I feel great after, all muscles are awake, and then I enjoy my several cool/low warm showers per week to do the normal sufficient body cleansing.
    Thanks for another great article that supports my healthy senior life-style

  2. scotty

    I swim regularly and agree with the author about the good effects–however my oncologist thinks I need weight strengthening for bones that swimming does not give me, so I have added those styrofoam barbells to my water aerobics to give me the benefits of resistance in the water. So now my laps give me endurance and flexibility while the weights give me strength.

  3. azure

    Used to swim laps, recently discovered that my skin seems to be sensitizing to the chlorine used to sanitize most pools in the US (in the EU, ozone gas is often used), even if I shower/use soap immediately after getting out of the pool.

    I can swim in salt water w/no problem but unfortunately need a wetsuit to swim in the salt water available to me now.

  4. David R. Torres, MD

    One way of conceptualizing thinking understanding, reasoning and problem solving is that our mind creates three dimensional images related to how we project ourselves and our loved ones into a future we imagine. We hold images related to how to change the world or if we cannot change it we consider how to survive in it. The body stores a vast fund of three dimensional images that we recall as emotions sensations and feelings. When mind meets body, these two data sets are organized into a probabilistic hierarchy where the action plan with the highest chance of successfully our goal bubbles to the top of all ways of behaving similar to a web search. Swimming helps sharpen thinking by making the connection between mind and brain more organized in a weightless void uniquely able to off load dorsal column fiber pathways we always use while erect. This enables the brain to develop new unique connection through synaptogenesis and neurogenesis in a highly efficient manner which is especially important in traumatic brain injured individuals
    DR Torres

  5. Marcos Severo

    very good research. “There is no drug in current or prospective use that holds as much promise for sustained health as a lifetime program of physical exercise.”

    IN 1982, Dr. Walter Bortz II, a university professor of medicine, wrote the above words. Over the past 23 years, numerous health experts and organizations have quoted these words in books, magazines, and Web pages. Evidently, today Dr. Bortz’s advice is just as current as it was in 1982, and it is still widely accepted as sound and relevant. So we do well to ask ourselves, ‘Am I getting enough exercise?’

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