Can swimming keep you young?

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Charmaine Yabsley

Hello, 900 calories scorched through three thirty minutes swims per week.

Hello, 900 calories scorched through three thirty minutes swims per week. Photo: Getty

Could swimming be the key to staying young? Research conducted by Indiana University Bloomington's Counsilman Centre for the Science of Swimming shows regular laps of the pool may be the answer to prolonging youth.

In the study, the researchers measured age markers, physiological function indicators that typically decline by 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent a year from the age of 35. They compared the markers of swimmers with similar data collected from the general population. It was found that fairly intensive swimming - about four kilometres, three to five times a week - substantially delayed the decline of age markers such as blood pressure, muscle mass, blood chemistry and pulmonary function. Not just temporarily, but for decades.

Gentle on your body

One of the major benefits of swimming is the freedom it gives your skeletal system. ''Swimming is one of the least dangerous sports in terms of the risk of suffering a sports injury, mainly due to the slow speed, lack of physical contact and supportive environment,'' says Brenton Ford, a coach at the Powerpoint Masters Swimming Club in Melbourne. ''When you're up to your neck in water, you're only bearing 10 per cent of your body weight. The remaining 90 per cent is borne by the pool, so it's gentle on the joints and body.''

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What happens when you swim

''Swimming provides a good aerobic workout for the whole body and can improve the strength endurance of the muscles in the shoulders and back,'' says the University of Sydney's Dr Nathan Johnson, who is also a spokesman for Exercise & Sports Science Australia. ''Unlike gym machines, which can isolate one body part at a time - think of doing a bicep curl on the machine - swimming puts the body through a broad range of motion that helps joints and ligaments stay loose and flexible.'' As you swim you move your arms in wide arcs, engaging the hips as the legs kick. The spine also twists from side to side. ''With every stroke you're lengthening the body, giving you a good top-to-toe stretch.''

Kick-start a routine

''To make your swim workout harder, increase the intensity to a level where the heart rate sits between 150 and 165 beats per minute,'' says former Olympic swimmer and now coach Michael Klim. ''Also try reducing rest cycles to teach your body to adapt with little rest. I like to isolate working on the arms by using a pull buoy and paddles, which will help strengthen your arms as well as focusing on isolating the legs and improving the kick, which will ultimately make you a better swimmer.''

Ford says one of the biggest mistakes people make when they go to the pool is swimming just one or two kilometres at the same pace. ''To get a better workout, break it up into a short warm-up,'' he says. ''Try swimming every third lap fast, and the others at a medium pace for recovery. The best way to get fitter and tone up is to do some high-intensity swimming.'' For those wishing to increase their strength, introduce paddles to your workout. But if you have flaws in your stroke, these will exacerbate them, Ford says. ''If your arm or hand is in an awkward position when you're pulling, then you'll put more pressure on your shoulder joints when using a paddle.'' Ford recommends starting with finger paddles.

It's never too late to learn

Whether you're six months or 66 years, taking swimming lessons is a good idea. ''It pays to learn the right technique,'' Ford says. ''If you have an average technique, your fitness will increase but your style will hold you back from getting better and faster.''

Happy as a fish in water

Swimming can change the brain for the better through a process known as hippocampal neurogenesis, when the brain replaces cells lost through stress. For those feeling blue (about 6 per cent of Australians suffer from depression or mental illness), swimming may help you get back on track. Just 30 minutes of breaststroke swimming three times a week could burn 900 calories - reducing the risk of contracting type 2 diabetes by more than 10 per cent. It also helps to raise the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels (good cholesterol): for every 1 per cent increase in HDL cholesterol, the risk of dying from heart disease drops 3.5 per cent.

30 minutes of breaststroke swimming three times a week can burn 900 calories