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Swimming isn’t just a fun, summertime activity. It is good for your heart, your muscle tone, and, depending on whom you ask, it may very well be good for weight loss.
But as with all forms of exercise, balancing it with the right diet is crucial for success.
The rate at which your body burns calories for energy is known as your metabolism. When you exercise, this rate increases. Just how much and for how long depends on a variety of factors including your gender, body composition, and what activity you’re doing.
"A 150-pound person will burn roughly 400 calories during an hour-long swim at a moderate pace, and 700 at a vigorous one," says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist, triathlete, and founder of TeamHolland. But that number isn’t the same for everyone. "The number of calories burned while swimming depends on a variety of factors including duration, intensity, swim stroke, weight, and even your relative swim efficiency."
Because you burn more calories when you swim faster, covering more distance, it makes sense that the fastest swim stroke has the potential to burn the most calories. Holland says this is the freestyle stroke. But, that doesn’t mean you should opt for the freestyle every time you get into the pool.
As well as speed, the amount of calories you burn also comes down to duration and frequency, says Holland. "So if you enjoy the breaststroke more than freestyle, you may swim longer and be more consistent utilizing that stroke, meaning more total calories burned."
He suggests doing what you are most likely to do on a consistent basis, and mixing up your strokes to work the most muscles and keep things interesting.
When you start any exercise program, it pays to know the best practices to keep your regimen safe and productive. Holland says to start slowly.
"Beginner swimmers should build up gradually," he says. "Doing too much, too soon can lead to injury, even given the no-impact nature of swimming."
Start with one to three swims a week, for short durations of between 10 to 30 minutes. Each week, add another five minutes.
Holland stresses that it’s important to rest whenever needed. In the beginning, you may swim a lap, take a break, and swim another lap, continuing this pattern through the workout.
If weight loss is your goal, you’ll want to create a caloric deficit that also gives you enough energy to fuel your workouts.
Holland says that eating at least 30 minutes before a workout that will last over an hour, or if you exercise in the morning, will give you the fuel you need, especially if you’re including carbs. "Carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred energy source for exercise," he says. "It’s also a good idea to refuel soon afterwards, consuming a small meal of quality carbohydrates with some lean protein."
You might be famished when you get out of the pool, but that doesn’t justify hitting the drive-thru on your way home. Pack a post-workout snack in your bag to hold you over until you can get to the kitchen.
Written by: Anna Schaefer
Medically reviewed on: Jun 08, 2015: Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE
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