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If You Want to Burn Fat-Will Swimming Do It?

Jan 28, 2014  - Joanne Malar

Swimming vs. Running: Which burns more fat?

With Christmas over and the New Year upon us, many people may have a resolution to lose a couple of those holiday pounds to start the year right. Many people wonder which activity is best for fat burning. For common folk trying to pick a form of exercise with the most bang for their buck (calorie burning and fat burning), does swimming stand up to weight bearing exercise such as running?

Apples to Oranges?

As a former swimmer and Holistic Nutritionist, I’ve heard opinions from both sides of the debate; “swimming uses more muscles and is a total body workout”, where as “running is weight bearing and better for shedding pounds.” In the end it may be comparing apples to oranges (or in this case running shoes to goggles), but the latest research may surprise you.

Factors in Comparing Swimming to Running

Comparing the caloric cost of swimming and running is not just a thought experiment, but one that many research groups and universities have been conducting for some time. These two types of activities share many similar exercise components for fat burning and calorie expenditure represented by the acronym F.I.T.T (frequency, intensity, time, and type). Basically, the longer (time) and more times you exercise (frequency) at a progressively higher heart rate (intensity) the more calories you will burn. So the last question to ask is what type of exercise?

Opposite findings in research may still lead you to same choice

Research published in the “Medicine and Sports in Science and Exercise” journal compared the caloric cost of 30 minutes of running to 30 minutes of swimming and found that swimming burned more calories/minute than running. Compared to running, swimming engages more muscle mass, which expends more calories and produces a leaner muscle and higher metabolism during inactivity. While another study (Kravitz, Robergs and Heyward, 1996) found the opposite, that swimming may use more muscles, but total muscle mass engaged compared to running was less. So the jury is out. An important caveat to consider is duration. Since swimming is low impact and friendlier on injuries, it may allow you to swim longer than you could run. A longer duration of workout would then give swimming the advantage in calorie and fat burning.

Say What?

Just when you think you have made your decision, think again! Research published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, studied different exercise programs, swimming and running among them. Each group started with 10 minutes of their assigned exercise, adding 5 minutes each additional week. After three months on the program the running group lost weight (17 lbs average) and the swimming group gained weight (5 lbs average).

Swimming Gets The Cold Shoulder!

If the study subjects were increasing their physical activity levels, why would only the swimmers gain weight? It turns out the water temperature has a lot to do with it. Swimming in cold water (20 to 26 degree Celsius water) actually stimulates your appetite, which researchers believe causes you to eat more, wiping away any extra calories you might have worked off in the pool. It’s almost like your body wants to build a “layer of protection” for the next time it has to dip into the water.

Potential Flaws in Studies?

As a holistic nutritionist, I have a different perspective than the body being viewed as a machine. I don’t believe that there is a blanket equation to determine all people’s weight loss or gain. The equation most used in studies is calories in (what you eat) - calories out (the calories you expend) = net difference would be a weight loss or weight gain.

What works for you may not work for me

I have seen countless clients who eat minimally, yet struggle to lose weight. I have seen countless non-athletes that eat enough to feed a small army and never have to worry about their weight regardless of their activity level. I believe there are so many more factors that come into play regarding our weight than the number on the scale!

Other factors that affect weight gain that are not often controlled for in studies are: individual metabolism, genetics, muscle mass/body composition, belief systems (placebo effect/power of mind) and personal stress at the time, which all effect weight.

Holistically Speaking

Our bodies are simply amazing. Scientists are still trying to discover and uncover all of its intricacies. I believe we are not the sum of our parts. A view that I consider to be more accurate is of our “mindbody” where our mind and body work as one. Often science dissects in order to understand, but it loses the whole picture at times. Our body organ systems work synergistically, intertwining and communicating between our physical bodies and minds all at once. The mindbody is incredibly complex, intelligent and that is the beauty of it.

To Swim or Not To Swim?

In a nutshell- exercise to me should be about holistic health, not weight or fat loss. Newer studies are showing that reducing stress may be the greatest factor in determining our overall health. The happier and less stressed we are, will actually have the greatest impact on our health, even more than our body fat percentages or caloric expenditures. To me it is about leading a balanced life.

Competitive swimmers don’t swim for weight loss, at least I hope not! We train to excel in our sport and reach our personal goals. If we end up with a slightly higher percentage of body fat than if we were track athletes, so be it. To know it’s because our body is smart, that’s okay with me. For the general public, I would always suggest choosing sports or activities you enjoy. You can get a great workout in almost any activity. If you are happy and reducing stress while you are at it, then even better! Life is too short to be concentrating only on reducing the number on your scale. I have found when you stop worrying about the number on the scale and listen to your body’s needs, your body will naturally take care of itself.

All the best in your New Year mindbody adventures!