Get in the Swim
As exercise goes, swimming offers its own unique set of benefits. Besides providing a good workout for your heart and lungs, water offers constant, gentle pressure on every part of the body, which, in turn, helps improve circulation from the outside in, eases joint and back pain, and increases flexibility and range of motion.
A 2002 study by the American College of Sports Medicine showed that water-based exercises are especially beneficial to those who find it difficult to exercise on land because of pain or physical disability.
"Swimming is liquid medicine," says Jane Katz, Ed.D., professor of physical education and athletics at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, and author of Swimming for Total Fitness. "Water offers 12 times the resistance of air, so it's an excellent medium for strength training, especially if you add water toys, such as barbells, kickboards, noodles and other equipment. Whether you're 6 months, 6 or 60 years old, swimming is a lifetime fitness activity."
Learn to breathe
If you're new to swimming, breathing is the most important skill to master.
"Many beginners hold their breath while they're swimming, then come up for air between strokes," says Dr. Katz. "That's a good way to wear yourself out quickly."
Dr. Katz advises practicing inhaling, then exhaling under water as you're swimming, so breathing becomes more fluid. "Once you master that, then you can concentrate on swimming," she says.
Beginner's 30-minute workout
Like exercising on land, it's important to organize your water workout into three parts: a warm-up, the main set and a cool-down.
For the warm-up, plan to spend five minutes getting your body acclimated and ready by treading water, water jogging in the shallow end or stretching by the side of the pool. Then, swim a few easy laps.
"Don't make your first lap your fastest," says Dr. Katz. "If you exhaust yourself in the beginning, you'll spend your entire workout catching up."
For your main set, spend 20 minutes doing laps. You can either mix your strokes or concentrate on one. A good stroke to master is the hand-over-hand crawl or freestyle stroke, in which you gently flutter kick and coordinate your hand-over-arm motion so you rhythmically breathe from one side when your head is turned and your opposite arm is forward. Your fastest lap should be toward the end of the main set.
"When learning the crawl, many beginners over kick," Dr. Katz cautions. To increase your speed and efficiency, focus on your arm strokes. In terms of perceived energy exertion, put 75 percent of your effort into your arms and 25 percent into kicking.
Go with a glide
Also, make sure you glide at the start of every lap, instead of swimming right from the get-go.
"In the pool, you coast with every lap, like not pedaling when you're bicycling downhill," says Dr. Katz. "The idea is to push off and glide, which helps align your body in the correct, streamlined position, then begin to swim."
For the cool-down, spend five minutes at the end of your workout doing water exercises or a few easy laps.
Dr. Katz recommends beginners work out in the pool at least two times a week for several months.