Swimming For Weight Loss: A Complete Guide (2023)

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to lose weight, especially when combined with a nutritious, calorie-restricted diet. From walking to cycling, running to rowing, physical activity helps you burn calories, which can create the caloric deficit you need to lose weight.

Although it might be more common that people start with walking or running to lose weight, it’s also possible to take up swimming for weight loss.

Swimming can be a great form of aerobic exercise, providing you with many physical and mental health benefits. Like walking or running, swimming burns calories, so swimming can help you lose weight provided your diet also supports weight loss.

In this article, we will explore swimming for weight loss, discuss the number of calories you burn swimming, and provide tips for losing weight swimming.

We will look at:

  • Is Swimming Good Exercise?
  • Is Swimming Good for Overweight People?
  • Can You Use Swimming For Weight Loss?
  • How Many Calories Do You Burn Swimming?
  • 5 Tips for Swimming for Weight Loss

Let’s get started!

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Is Swimming Good Exercise?

Swimming can be an excellent form of exercise with many physical and mental health benefits. Like cycling or running, swimming is considered an aerobic, or cardio, workout because it increases your heart rate.

In this way, swimming strengthens your heart and lungs, and can reduce your risk of certain lifestyle diseases like heart disease and hypertension.

Swimming also strengthens your muscles. In fact, swimming can be considered a total-body exercise because you’re using nearly all of your major muscles during most strokes.

Is Swimming Good for Overweight People?

While probably any type of exercise can potentially be safely enjoyed by someone who is overweight or obese, swimming is a particularly good form of exercise for people who are overweight or obese.

One of the best benefits of choosing swimming over other forms of exercise if you are overweight is that the buoyancy provided by the water helps offset your body weight and reduces the impact and force on your joints.

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This makes swimming and other forms of water exercise more comfortable and lower risk than high-impact, weight-bearing activities like running or walking for many people who are obese or overweight.

Being submerged in water can also help keep your body cooler as you work out.

Can You Use Swimming For Weight Loss?

If you’re trying to lose weight, the obvious question becomes, “Can you lose weight swimming?”

Yes, you can absolutely lose weight swimming. To lose weight, you have to create a caloric deficit. This means that you consume fewer calories than you burn.

To lose one pound of stored body fat, you have to create a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories. To quantify this in terms of time, if you want to lose one pound per week, you need to burn 500 calories more per day than you eat.

The calories you burn per day depend on your basal metabolic rate (BMR), the calories you burn from exercise and activities of daily living, and the calories needed to metabolize the food you eat.

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Note that BMR refers to the calories your body burns at rest just to maintain your basic functions like breathing.

The American Council on Exercise reports that your BMR represents about 60-75% of the total calories you burn in a day, with your physical activity and dietary-induced thermogenesis (calories burned digesting food) contributing the rest.

Swimming can help you lose weight if you’re using it to create a caloric deficit with your diet.

For example, if you need to eat 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight, and you start swimming and burn 500 calories per day in your workouts without eating more calories, you will start to lose about one pound per week with your swimming workouts.

However, if you are eating 2,500 calories a day or more, even if you burn 500 calories per day swimming, you will not lose weight.

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How Many Calories Do You Burn Swimming?

The number of calories you burn in any workout depends not only on the type of exercise you’re doing but also on your body weight and composition and the duration and intensity of your workout. Therefore, it’s difficult to definitively report the number of calories you burn swimming.

With swimming, the type of stroke you’re doing can affect the number of calories you burn in a workout as much as doing two different types of exercise (for example, running versus rowing) can.

This is because certain swimming strokes, mainly butterfly and freestyle, are inherently more physically taxing than others (such as breaststroke), which means you’re using more of your muscle mass or overcoming more water resistance.

As a result, the metabolic cost and the number of calories you burn swimming these strokes are higher.

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However, it’s important to note that the intensity of pace that you are swimming laps ultimately determines how many calories you burn swimming.

Leisurely swimming freestyle will burn fewer calories in a 30 minute workout than vigorously swimming breaststroke for the same duration.

Because swimming takes place in the water, it’s more difficult to accurately measure caloric expenditure because the laboratory equipment used for exercises like running or cycling that can help analyze respiratory gasses to estimate the energy cost of the activity aren’t typically designed to be used in the water.

With that said, there are ways that researchers can get a pretty accurate estimate of the number of calories burned swimming.

Harvard Health Publishing reports that 30 minutes of “general swimming” burns 180 calories for a 125-pound person, 216 calories for a 155-pound person, and 252 calories for a 185-pound person.

Swimming laps at a vigorous effort is reported to burn 300 calories for a 125-pound person, 360 calories for a 155-pound person, and 420 calories for a 185-pound person.

The best way to estimate the number of calories you burn swimming for your own personal workout is to wear a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker. The estimated caloric expenditure will be more accurate if your heart rate is measured.

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You can also use your heart rate data to gauge your effort level and then use the formula for Metabolic Equivalents (METs) to calculate the number of calories you burn swimming.

The Compendium of Physical Activities reports that swimming can be the equivalent of approximately 4-14 METS or so, depending on the stroke and intensity or effort level.

For example, swimming freestyle at a light effort is 5.8 METs.

You can see the various METS based on swimming stroke and intensity in the table below:

METSStrokeEffort
9.8FreestyleFast, vigorous
5.8FreestyleSlow, light effort
9.5BackstrokeTraining or competition
4.8BackstrokeRecreational
10.3BreaststrokeTraining or competition
5.3BreaststrokeRecreational
13.8ButterflyGeneral
10.0Front CrawlFast, 75 yards/min, vigorous effort
8.3Front CrawlMedium speed, 50 yards/min, vigorous
7.0SidestrokeGeneral
6.0Lake, oceanGeneral
6.0Leisurely, not lap swimmingRecreational
9.8Treading WaterFast, vigorous
3.5Treading WaterModerate effort

Using these METs values, you can calculate the number of calories burned swimming based on your body weight and duration of your workout using the equation to determine energy expenditure:

Calories Burned Per Minute = METs x 3.5 x (your body weight in kilograms) / 200

For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg) and swim crawl stroke at a fast speed (75 meters per minute, which is three lengths of a standard pool), which is estimated to be 10 METS: 10.0 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 13.125 calories per minute.

Then, if you swim for 30 minutes, you multiply the number of calories burned per minute by 30 minutes = 13.125 x 30 = 394 calories.

In another example, if the same swimmer does the crawl stroke at a medium speed (50 meters per minute, which is one full lap down and back of a standard pool), which is estimated to be 8.3 METS: 8.3 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 10.9 calories per minute.

Then, if you swim for 30 minutes, you multiply the number of calories burned per minute by 30 minutes = 10.9 x 30 = 327 calories.

Finally, if you are swimming breast stroke at a recreational pace for 30 minutes, which is estimated to be 5.3 METS: 5.3 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 6.96 calories per minute.

Then, 6.96 calories per minute x 30 minutes = 209 calories.

It can be seen that the calories burned swimming ranges widely based on the specific stroke and intensity level.

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5 Tips for Swimming for Weight Loss

If your primary goal is swimming for weight loss, here are some tips that can help with swimming for weight loss:

#1: Vary Your Strokes

One of the beauties of swimming as a form of exercise is that there are several different strokes to choose from, such as crawl stroke, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke. You can also mix in aqua aerobics or aqua jogging.

Varying your swim strokes not only helps prevent boredom during your workout, but it also can make it easier to swim longer because different strokes use different muscles. This can prevent premature fatigue in smaller muscles by varying the workload.

Switching up your swimming strokes also strengthens more muscles than if you stick with the same stroke.

For example, the movements of your arms and legs vary significantly between breaststroke and crawl stroke. This recruits different muscles, soyou’ll have more of a total-body workout if you do some laps with each stroke.

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#2: Intensity Is Key

Swimming for weight loss is most effective when you ramp up your intensity. The harder you’re working, the more calories you’ll burn swimming.

You want your heart rate to be at least 50-75% of your maximal heart rate for moderate-intensity exercise, and the American Heart Association recommends a target heart rate of 70-85% of your maximum heart rate for vigorous physical activity.

You can calculate your target average heart rate while swimming by first estimating your maximum heart rate (220 – age in years).

Then, find 70% of this value by multiplying your result by 0.7. This is the lower value in the range. Finally, multiply your age-estimated max heart rate by 0.85. This is your upper value.

For example, if you are 40 years old, your estimated max heart rate is 220 – 40 = 180 bpm. Then, 0.7 x 180 = 126 bpm and 0.85 x 180 = 153 bpm. Therefore, your target average heart rate while swimming should be 126 – 153 bpm.

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Keep in mind that 220 – age is just a rough estimate of your actual heart rate. The standard deviation is nearly 17 beats in either direction.

According to researchers, a more accurate estimation can be found through the following formulas:

  • Maximum Heart Rate for Males = 208.609-0.716 x age
  • Maximum Heart Rate for Females = 209.273-0.804 x age

For example, if you’re a 40-year old male: 208.609-0.716 x 40 = 180 bpm. If you’re a 40-year old female: 209.273-0.804 x 40 = 177 bpm.

Wear a waterproof heart rate monitor or fitness tracker while you swim to measure your heart rate, or periodically check your pulse manually by counting the beats in 15 seconds and multiplying the total by 4.

#3: Do Intervals

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way to increase your exercise intensity and your caloric expenditure. Try alternating hard laps with recovery laps for a metabolically-demanding swim workout.

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#4: Gradually Increase Duration

The longer you work out, the more calories you will burn as long as you don’t reduce the intensity. When you first start out, you might only be able to swim for a few minutes, but try to add 5 minutes or so to your workout session time per week.

For example, if you start with 10-minute swims, aim for 15 minutes the next week, 20 the next, and 25 the next until you’re at 30-60 minutes per workout.

#5: Swim More Often

Because swimming is a very low-impact activity, you can safely swim nearly every day, especially if you are varying the strokes you do. It’s a good idea to take at least one full rest day per week.

However, aside from that, if you’re swimming for weight loss, the greater the number of days per week that you swim, the more weight you can lose.

To compliment your exercise routine and swimming for weight loss on your quest to lose weight, healthy nutrition is key. Take a look at some of our healthy diets to spiff up your nutrition.

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