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Working Out in Water: The Benefits and Risks
of Swimming and Other Water Exercise


We all know that we should get plenty of exercise, but with summer coming, who wants to be stuck inside of the gym? An ideal solution is to take your workout with you to the beach or pool, and burn some calories while still enjoying the season.

water workouts

Swimming in salt water is said to have a detoxifying and balancing effect on your body.

But is swimming and other water exercise really a good workout?

The Benefits of Working Out in Water

From traditional swimming to water aerobics like Water Boxing and Aqua Step, you can get a great workout in the pool.

The major benefit of working out in water is that you get resistance coming from all sides, but without the stress and impact that you get from exercising on land. In fact, working out in water requires that you support just 50 percent of your body weight, which makes exercising easier yet still effective.

Because of this, water workouts are especially good for anyone who needs a gentle, low-impact workout, including if you are elderly, obese, or pregnant, or if you have arthritis, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, heart problems or other pain issues.

Swimming has actually been called the perfect form of exercise because it conditions your entire body, without straining your heart and with a low risk of injury.

Benefits include:

  • Increased flexibility and endurance

  • Greater muscle tone and strength

  • Cardio-respiratory conditioning

If traditional swimming or a water aerobics class doesn't appeal to you, you can start out a simple water workout just by walking, jogging or running in water. Or, try bending your knees and squatting as low as you can, then repeating this squat 5-10 times.

The Downside to Water Workouts

While water workouts can be effective and gentle, there are some drawbacks. First, because water makes you so buoyant, swimming does not provide the weight-bearing benefits of working out on the land. Because of this, it won't help you to reduce or prevent bone loss and osteoporosis the way land aerobics or jogging would.


The great thing about water aerobics is that it's gentle on your body and suitable for all fitness levels. The downside? Toxic chlorine byproducts that accumulate in the air.

If you choose to swim in a pool, there is also the issue of chlorine. This chemical has been linked to increased risks of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and more, and when you swim in chlorinated water, your skin absorbs it. In fact, swimming in chlorinated water may be even more damaging than drinking it.

For instance, a study published in a 2007 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology found that those who drank chlorinated water had a 35 percent increased risk of bladder cancer. However, those who spent time swimming in chlorinated pools had a 57 percent increased risk.

Meanwhile, when chlorine comes into contact with other naturally occurring elements in water, it forms dangerous byproducts such as trihalomethanes (THMs) and chloroform, which you inhale. This is particularly concerning in the case of indoor pools, as the fumes can collect indoors.

The buildup of chlorine byproducts around indoor swimming pools is known to cause asthma in children, even by just living in the vicinity of one. A study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine indeed found that the rate of childhood wheezing rose by 3.39 percent -- and the rate of asthma by 2.73 percent -- for every additional indoor chlorinated swimming pool per 100,000 area residents.

You can minimize the chlorine risks by swimming in fresh or saltwater, but that also has its own risks, such as rip currents.

Rip currents are channeled currents of water that flow powerfully away from shore. They can be narrow or stretch over 50 yards across, and they move very quickly. Average rip currents move from one to two feet per second, but some have been clocked at eight feet per second.

These dangerous currents can occur at any beach that has breaking waves, which includes oceans and the Great Lakes. Extending from the shoreline past the line of breaking waves, rip currents can easily pull even the most seasoned swimmer out to sea. According to the Lifesaving Association, it's estimated that over 100 people may die due to rip currents each year.

The Best Workout Advice?

Swimming and water workouts can be a great way to get in shape. But to avoid some of the downsides, vary your workout with other types of exercises that appeal to you, such as:

Recommended Reading

The Nine Best Exercises for You if You Have Aching Joints

Should You Wait an Hour After Eating Before You Go Swimming?


American Journal of Epidemiology 2007 165(2):148-156

Science Daily July 18, 2006

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