When she stepped into the pool in January 2009, Makeda Pennycooke didn’t know how to swim. The 38-year-old executive pastor from Charlotte, N.C., had signed up for lessons in hopes of getting a workout and conquering her fear of the water.
During her first lesson, Pennycooke learned it was going to take some practice before she could swim a lap. “I was really discouraged at first because I felt like I wasn’t getting it,” she says, “but after two months of lessons, it started to come together and I realized that I loved swimming.”
Hitting the water has long topped lists of best workouts because it’s a low-impact exercise that puts minimal stress on the joints and a heart-pumping cardiovascular workout that builds endurance and helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A 155-pound woman burns about 223 calories in 30 minutes. Plus the resistance of the water forces your body to work harder to complete each movement, toning your biceps, triceps, back, chest, stomach, and leg muscles as you swim.
“Swimming isn’t about perfect strokes — at least not at first,” says Jane Katz, EdD, professor of health and physical education at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and author of Swimming for Total Fitness: A Progressive Aerobic Program. “New swimmers should just focus on getting into the water and moving.”
Not all swimming workouts are the same. How you structure your water routine and the strokes you choose make a difference. Beginners often prefer the backstroke and sidestroke, which are less difficult and don’t require breathing out underwater. More experienced swimmers who want a demanding exercise session favor the butterfly and freestyle strokes, Katz says.
The trickiest part of learning to swim is mastering the art of breathing. Katz suggests practicing in the shallow end: Put your face underwater and exhale through your nose and mouth, lift your face out of the water and inhale, go back under water and exhale. Keep practicing until it feels comfortable.
Pennycooke’s lessons lasted 30 minutes, and each week she was stronger, faster, and more confident in the pool. “The first time our class swam 10 laps, I was one of the last to finish, but I didn’t care because I felt such a massive sense of accomplishment,” she recalls. “To go from a nonswimmer to a swimmer is a huge item checked off my bucket list.”
What You Need for Swimming
To ensure your workout goes swimmingly, swim expert Jane Katz, EdD, suggests stocking up on a few essentials:
Swim cap. A fitted cap keeps your hair in place, reduces drag in the water, and helps protect your hair from pool chemicals like chlorine. Beginners should stick with the more comfortable silicone caps, while competitive swimmers favor thinner, tighter latex caps.
Goggles. Protect your eyes from irritation and inflammation while seeing more clearly underwater. Transparent lenses are best for indoor swimming, and polarized lenses with UV protection are essential outdoors.
Sunscreen. If you’re swimming outdoors, sunscreen is a must. The sun reflects off the water, increasing your risk of sunburn. “Apply waterproof sunscreen before you get in the water,” says Katz.
Water bottle. Your body still sweats while you’re in the pool. Katz advises taking regular breaks from swimming laps to hydrate, just as if you were at the gym.