If you’re wanting to be healthier, happier, and fitter in 2024 consider taking to the water and swimming your way to a better you

There’s something bout immersing yourself in water that feels strangely comforting, whether it’s a long soak in a hot bath or some leisurely lengths in a swimming pool. My inquisitive mind wonders if it’s anything to do with our pre-entry into the world, immersed in the comfort and safety of our mother’s amniotic fluid, happily swimming around care-free for months. Needless to say, Google doesn’t seem to share my enthusiasm for the subject. My search came up with nothing. Perhaps I’m onto something and no one else has realised yet.

Aside from being an important life skill, swimming as an exercise can be both beautifully restorative and intensely challenging, depending on how you go at it.

The options for swimming here in the Algarve are endless. From outdoor municipal pools open to the public to glorious hotels, beach clubs, swimming clubs, gyms, and private pools. And let’s not forget the vast expanse that is the Atlantic Ocean (if you’re feeling brave).

So, what are the benefits of swimming when it comes to health and wellbeing?

As the British Heart Foundation points out, swimming is a low-impact activity (unless you’re doing it as part of a triathlon, of course!), meaning it’s great for those who find other exercise regimes exacerbate joint strain and pain. Supported by the water, swimming provides a great opportunity to work the whole body, including the core, through non-weight bearing exercise. Whether you’re front crawling, backstroking, or doggy paddling, cardiovascular health can also be improved by regular swimming sessions, helping to strengthen the heart and improve circulation. Just be sure to stay away from cold water swimming if you have a heart condition. The British Heart Foundation recommends a water temperature of 26° to 33°C.

Water provides natural, gentle resistance when swimming, helping to build strength and endurance in the muscles. According to Swim England, 30 minutes exercising in a pool is equal to 45 minutes of the same activity on dry land – though good luck with doing front crawl on the grass! A 2014 Australian study looked at the correlation between swimming and falling in older males, finding that men 70 years and older who regularly swam had better balance control and a 32% less risk of falling in day-to-day life compared to those who didn’t take the plunge. A small study of regular swimmers over the age of 65 also found improved hand eye coordination compared to non-swimmers.

If you’re the calorie-counting kind then Swim England points out that a 30-minute swim can burn 200 calories (and we’re not talking a crazy fast swim), double the amount you could potentially be burning by walking. The going rate for overall health and wellbeing appears to be a 30-minute swim three times a week.

Mental health may get a boost from a good swim, with Swim England stating that 1.4 million adults in Britain have reduced their anxiety or depression by swimming. Respiratory health gets a look in, too, with swimming potentially improving lung capacity and respiratory function both in healthy individuals and those with asthma.

Wild and wonderful
Wild swimming has become somewhat of a buzz word, thrust into the limelight by Wim Hof and his specialised breathing techniques teemed with extreme cold plunges. I jumped headfirst on the cold-water bandwagon and found myself swimming in the Serpentine (a lake in central London) one January in -1°C, I can’t say the swim itself was enjoyable, but the group camaraderie and dopamine rush post-plunge was mildly addictive.

There’s an art to cold-water swimming though, it can be very dangerous. I don’t recommend taking it up without proper acclimatisation, it can be very easy to go into cold water shock. Same goes for open-water swimming, know your limits and stick to them. If you’re not a competent swimmer already then leave the open-water and cold-water swimming to the professionals.

As a non-weight bearing exercise, swimming in a pool is a safe option for most people, whether pregnant, suffering from an injury, arthritis, or other long-term illness (always good to check with your healthcare provider first if you’re new to swimming). Good blood circulation is important for brain health and cognitive function, swimming helps get everything moving, particularly if you’re prone to a sedentary lifestyle. And let’s not forget the stress relieving benefits of a few steady lengths in the Portuguese sunshine on a glorious Summer’s day. Cooling down, destressing, and exercising all at the same time – multi-tasking at its finest.

Words: Sally Dixon

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