Water workouts can help your heart

Taking a dip regularly can drop your blood pressure

Published: July 2012

Swimming has always been a great way to reduce stress, but it can actually ease more than your mind. Taking a dip regularly can drop your blood pressure, according to a study published in the April 2012 American Journal of Cardiology.

Researchers studied 43 sedentary older adults with elevated blood pressure and found that a three-month program of slow to moderate swimming lowered their systolic blood pressure (the top number) by an average of 9 points. What’s more, the water workouts—three or four days a week swimming laps for 15 to 45 minutes—led to a significant improvement in their vascular function, a first-of-its-kind finding.

“Their carotid arteries became more elastic and responsive to changes in blood flow, which is beneficial because when they’re stiff, the heart will have a harder time pumping blood,” says Hirofumi Tanaka, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study and director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.

In addition to decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, swimming can burn roughly the same amount of calories as jogging with less stress on your joints. It also provides a cooling, energizing and, thanks to water’s buoyancy, uplifting experience.

Before you begin

There are now an estimated 8.6 million public and residential pools in the U.S., making the activity more accessible than ever. To find a public one for your workouts, check with your local community center or fitness club. But before stepping in, follow these precautions:

Get the go-ahead. See a health professional before beginning any new exercise regimen. With swimming, that’s especially critical if you have heart disease or lung disease, since water pressure can increase the stress on your heart and lungs. And if you’re a beginning swimmer or you feel uneasy about getting back into a pool, wear a belt, vest, or other flotation device to help keep your head above water.

Check for cleanliness. Poorly maintained swimming pools are common, allowing bacteria and viruses to cause outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness and ear and eye infections. Inspections at 3,666 health clubs in 13 states found serious lapses requiring the immediate closing of 10 percent of the pools, according to a May 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the most common problems were poorly controlled circulation and filtering systems and inadequate disinfection.

Ask employees about chlorine and pH levels, which should be checked at least twice a day. Chlorine should be in the range of 1 to 3 parts per million, and pH should range between 7.2 and 7.8. The water should have little odor and be clear enough to see the bottom of the pool easily.

Don’t go it alone. Try to always swim with a buddy or make sure that a lifeguard is on duty. Even expert swimmers can have water emergencies.

Stay hydrated. Bring enough water for drinking before, during, and after a workout. It’s easy to forget that you’re sweating when you’re in the water.

Once you're in

Try these tips for beginners from the coaches at the Michael Phelps Swim School at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Maryland.

Use the breaststroke. It will allow you to breathe while your head is above the water, which is less intimidating for beginners. (Ideally, swimmers should exhale through their nose when their head is submerged.) For a simplified breaststroke, simply draw a heart in the water with your hands; start with them under your chest and extend your arms forward. Then swing your hands back to the starting point. Kick your legs like a frog-pull your feet up to your trunk and kick them back. Take smooth, rhythmic breaths throughout.

Stay on the surface. When swimming, don’t let your knees drop deep into the water. Try to keep your body horizontal, with your hips and waist in line with the water’s surface. That way you’ll face less resistance and move more efficiently through the water.

Follow proper etiquette. When swimming laps, always stay to the right. That enables more than one person to swim in a single lane.

Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in the newsletter Consumer Reports on Health.

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