The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Play in the Water and Burn Calories like an Olympian

Written by
Michael Harper, MEd
Posted in
Move more

Monday, Aug 13, 2012

The 2012 Summer Olympics have proven once again to have some amazing battles, swimming included. Many races came right down to the wire with each swimmer going to full exhaustion during the race. During the races many of these swimmers were burning over 10 times the amount of calories that one would burn while at complete rest.1 Many swim activities, from a leisurely swim to fast freestyle swimming, burn between 6 and 10 times the amount one would burn while sitting at rest so not only does participating in these types of activities contribute to meeting the current physical activity recommendations but they also can result in significant calorie burn which can aid in weight loss and weight maintenance.

But just burning a lot of energy won’t end up making you an Olympian. This was seen in many races in the Olympics when some of the swimmers appeared to have a much faster stroke rate, kicked more or reached out much further with their arms each stroke, but still didn’t end up in the lead. When trying to swim at fast paces, swimmers have to manage a number of factors: kick rate, stroke rate and stroke length. Often times when stroke rate goes down, swimmers will increase kick rate and try to increase stroke length in an attempt to maintain the same pace. Doing so often causes exertion levels and oxygen usage to go up significantly.2 Thus, they may not be able to do this for very long. Conversely, as stroke rate goes up, exertion can also go up and still not produce an increase in speed due to a decreased stroke length to maintain the faster pace.2  

Using this to burn more. . .

Slowing down the stroke rate has been shown to require more oxygen which means more calories will be burned so you may try playing around with your stroke rate to maximize calorie burn. Of course this wouldn’t be your most efficient swimming form and therefore if it causes you to fatigue too quickly in your workout, you may burn less total calories than if you swam more efficiently for a longer period of time. Interval training in the pool, just as on land, is a nice way to increase the amount of calories you are burning for a set period of time.

Even without swimming, the pool can still bring major benefits. . .

Happy older woman celebrating in pool

Even if you aren’t a swimmer, there’s still good news. Other activities like water volleyball, water calisthenics or aerobics, water jogging and treading water at a moderate speed burn between 3 and 4 times the amount burned when sitting at rest. This type of energy expenditure is considered moderate intensity exercise and also contributes to the current physical activity guidelines (150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity).

So beat the “end of summer” heat and enjoy a fun day at the pool all while burning calories at the same time!

Did the 2012 Summer Olympics inspire you to jump in the pool or take on a new activity that you have never tried before? We would love to know!

1Ainsworth BE. (2002, January) The Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide. Prevention Research Center, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina. Retrieved [date] from the World Wide Web.

2McLean, Scott P, Dean Palmer, Graham Ice, Martin Trudens, and Jimmy Smith. "Oxygen Uptake Response to Stroke Rate Manipulation in Freestyle Swimming." Med & Sci in Sports & Exercise. 42.10 (2010): 1909-1913. Print.