Swimming has been touted as one of the most effective forms of exercise that is appropriate for everyone regardless of their age and fitness levels. The buoyancy offered by water makes swimming a very low impact exercise, making the workout enjoyable and beneficial even if you are suffering from back, knee or joint pain. However, there is a flip side to every coin, so next time you decide to jump into that pool, remember to weigh up both the positive as well as the negative effects of swimming.

How is Swimming Good for You?

There is no doubt about it – when it comes to exercise, nothing beats swimming! It gets your heart pumping and melts away stubborn fat faster than other forms of cardio and works out almost all your major muscle groups simultaneously. What more could you want? As it turns out, this is only the tip of the iceberg of the positive long term effects of swimming on your body.

Improved Cardiovascular Health

The effects of swimming extend beyond fat burn to include expansion of your heart, lung and blood vessel capacity – all in a single go. Because swimming targets all your major muscles – and several of the not so major ones – simultaneously, your heart and lungs need to function overtime to make sure that all goes well. Your lungs take in oxygen as you breathe and release it in your bloodstream, after which your heart takes over. The heart is responsible for pumping this oxygenated blood throughout your body so that your muscles can help themselves to all the oxygen they need to cope with the increased activity.

Improved Muscular Endurance

Improvement in muscle tone is one of the first noticeable effects of swimming. But over the long term, your muscles also develop what is known as muscular endurance, or the ability to perform increasingly strenuous work without experiencing fatigue. This is possible due to the formation of new capillaries in your muscles to cater to your heart’s increased ability to deliver more blood to them. This allows more oxygen to be delivered to your muscles, increasing their capacity for work.

But the picture is not as rosy as you might think…

If you are taking up swimming as a serious exercise, it is most likely that you will turn to your nearest pool. But did you know that swimming in a pool is not exactly as good for you as you might think?

Modern swimming pools use chlorine as a disinfectant, a source of most of the adverse effects of swimming. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, chlorine interacts with the water to alter alkalinity levels in the pool, creating secondary compounds which are responsible for several health problems.

While the Center acknowledges this, they also accept that not using disinfectants at all could make matters worse. Unfortunately, the present lack of alternatives to chlorine means that we really have no other choice but to use this chemical.

“Swimmer’s Asthma”

In an interview with the Discovery Channel, Manolis Kogevinas, an epidemiologist at the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Barcelona, mentioned “swimmer’s asthma” as one of the long term effects of swimming in chlorinated pools. According to Kogevinas, prolonged exposure to chlorine can result in asthma-like symptoms as your body absorbs the chemical through the skin. The risk is especially increased for professional and competitive swimmers and swimming instructors who remain in contact with chlorinated water for extended periods of time.

Increased Risk of Cancer

Manolis Kogevinas also talked extensively about the increased risk of cancer associated with exposure to chlorinated water. This is further corroborated by a study carried out by the American Journal of Epidemiology which observed that one of the effects of swimming has been found to be a higher risk of bladder, colorectal, vaginal and uterine cancer. Furthermore, another study published in Environmental Health Perspectives has found that frequent swimmers are at a higher risk of permanent DNA mutation, which in turn puts them at a higher risk of cancer.

Damage to Hair, Teeth and Nails

The chlorine used in most swimming pools takes the form of gas rather than granules. The reaction of this gas with water results in the production of hydrochloric acid which then erodes swimmers’ teeth and nails and damages their hair. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention examined the effects of swimming in chlorinated water on the members of a swim team and found that 39 percent of them showed symptoms of tooth decay and nail enamel erosion. A further 15 percent of the members of swim team complained of sensitive teeth and soft nails, while 27 percent complained of damaged hair, hair fall and breakage.

Irritation in Eyes and Skin

Eye and skin infections are another addition to the long list of the adverse long term effects of swimming. Swimmers may experience burning in their nasal tracts and mouths from accidentally swallowing pool water. Similarly, prolonged exposure to chlorinated water may also result in rashes and irritated or sensitive skin and eyes.

What can you do about it?

Take a leaf out of Canadian swimmer Catherine Garceau’s book Swimming Out of Water. In this book, she talks about what a “mess” her life had turned into after winning the bronze medal in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. She recalls how the extended hours of pool-time needed to prepare her for the Olympics resulted in chronic bronchitis, diarrhea and migraine, forcing her to give up competitive swimming in 2002.

Catherine then turned to holistic medicine and healing to help her deal with the side effects of swimming for extended hours in chlorinated pools, and, in an interview with CNN described this as “an amazing journey” that had helped her greatly.

In her book Swimming Out of Water she lists the tips and tricks that have helped her in dealing with her health and wellness problems associated with extensive swimming. Some of the main principles from her detox program are as follows:

  • Do not fill your stomach up. Only eat till you are 80% full.
  • Except for meat and fish, try to eat as much raw and natural food as possible. Avoid processed foods.
  • If possible, switch to sea salt.
  • Switch to organic fruits and vegetables
  • Coconut water is your best friend
  • Drink purified water
  • Choose healthy fats and oils

At the same time, Catherine also advises that you need to steer clear of depression and stress. She describes these two conditions as “the biggest enemies” for any health and wellness program. If you stay depression- and stress-free, your body will become stronger and your recovery will be faster. Catherine suggests that you keep yourself motivated and remain in a relaxed frame of mind throughout.

While we give our full backing to Catherine Garceau’s health and wellness tips, we also suggest that you discuss your particular situation with your doctor before taking any steps.