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Take a plunge

travel Updated: Feb 20, 2010 10:34 IST
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Jumping into a pool of water at the end of a long, hot day is extremely enticing. No wonder few of us consider swimming serious exercise. But it is, in fact, one of the best ways to get a complete cardiovascular workout. In addition, it is a full body exercise that burns more calories. In a 30-minute session of doing the breaststroke, you can use as many as 380 calories.

What makes it so good?
The reason swimming wins over other cardio workouts such as running or cycling, is because you weigh much lesser in water (about a tenth) and therefore, don't have to worry about high-impact injuries. Khazan Singh Tokas, former Asian Games medallist who now runs a swimming academy in Delhi, says, "You burn more calories with swimming than with walking or jogging, and it puts no strain on your knees and ankles."

Swimming elevates the heart rate and stimulates circulation, improving your cardiovascular health. It also helps strengthen your lungs: During lap swimming, you typically breathe every few strokes and hold your breath in between. This increases lung capacity over time.

Regular swimming also helps to build endurance and muscle strength because of the resistance water offers to all movements.

Warm up or cool down
If you go to a gym regularly, you can swim to introduce a new element in your regime. Besides being the cardiovascular part of your workout, it's a great way to warm up or cool down. If you swim before a workout, start slow and gradually increase intensity to raise your heart rate and stimulate the muscles.

If you've just finished an intensive workout or returned from a long run, swimming a few laps will cool you down, and circulate blood through your muscles to help them recover. Besides, there's nothing quite as relaxing as a dip in the water.

Use it to cross train
According to swimmer Virdhaval Khade, the great thing about intensive swimming is that it helps "maintain the size of your muscles and tone the body, while increasing strength."
No wonder then that athletes across sports swear by swimming as a great way to cross train and keep the body in shape during the off-season. Swimming uses all the major muscle groups, including the shoulders, back, abdominals, legs, hips, and glutes. And because water affords 12 times the resistance as air, it really helps to build strength.

According to squash player Ritwik Bhattacharya, cross training prevents an athlete from getting bored with his own sport. At the same time, it exercises muscle groups that are not normally used in the athlete's own sport, thus helping maintain overall body strength.

Footballer Baichung Bhutia says, "It's important not to let go during the off-season. That's why I head to the pool five times a week when I'm not training."

Swimming is also a great recovery method to use when you're following an intensive training regime, like preparing for a marathon. Heath Matthews, physiotherapist with the Mittal Champion Trust, who's trained the likes of Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal and Olympic gold winning shooter Abhinav Bindra, says, "Running every day can lead to overuse injuries, so it's important to alternate runs with recovery methods like yoga, pilates or swimming. This helps build flexibility and strength. Swimming is one of the easiest recovery methods."

Make the most of it
Tennis player Leander Paes, who recently won the mens doubles title at the Australian Open, swears by pool workouts. "The pool does not cause wear and tear, and is great for an injury-proof workout. Besides swimming laps for cardio, treading water is superb for building muscle."

To increase the load, he advises using webbed gloves and flippers. He adds: "With the trainer standing outside holding a resistance band that goes around my waist, I go through the full sprinting motion in neck deep water. Try it, and be prepared to get completely exhausted."
Like any other workout, to make the most of swimming as exercise, you can introduce an interval-training regime. Incorporating bursts of high-energy work helps improve aerobic capacity and gradually push yourself up to a higher level.

Upper body vs lower body
By itself, swimming relies more on the upper body than the legs. So while it tones the upper body beautifully, giving you great shoulders and arms, it doesn't do much for your leg muscles. This won't be a problem if you're cross training, but if swimming is your main form of exercise you can make up for this gap by including a session of kicking workouts, water aerobics and pool running. All of these exercises will be far more effective in water than outside it because of the greater resistance water offers.

Heal yourself
Convinced? Good, but we're not done extolling the virtues of swimming just yet. Besides all the other things we've said about it. Swimming is also a great way to rehabilitate an injury.

According to Khazan Singh, it's also a good form of exercise for the elderly and those who have arthritis, helping them improve their range of motion and relieve pain and stiffness.
Aditi Shankar, 31, a corporate lawyer with a well-known Mumbai firm, started swimming on her physiotherapist's recommendation after she injured her back lifting weights in the gym. "I began swimming to strengthen my back muscles after the initial sessions of physiotherapy. It was recommended as the safest exercise to help me rebuild those muscles without risking injury."

Can't lose weight
Here's one thing you should know though. Swimming is a great way to stay fit, but it won't help you lose weight. Why is that? You burn calories easily when you're swimming, but because of the cooling effects of being in water, this burning of calories stops once you get out of the pool. With an exercise like running or cycling, there is a continued calorie use long after because the body has to do work to cool you down.

Eat right
Any one who has swum intensively, will remember feeling extremely hungry afterwards. Researchers believe that being surrounded by cold water for a period of time increases the appetite, causing swimmers to eat more once they get out of the water. The eating part is fine; just resist the impulse to order french fries and stick with health food else you'll end up undoing all your good work.

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