Which Exercise Is Best For Heart Health: Swimming or Walking?

Reader Pat asked the skeptical cardiologist the following question:

Which would be the better heart healthy choice? Walking briskly 3 x week or swimming for 45 minutes 2-3 x a week?

Swimming is an attractive alternative to walking or running for many of my patients with arthritis because it is a lot easier on the load-bearing joints of the lower extremities.
To my surprise there is at least one study (from Australia) comparing swimming and walking that was published in the journal Metabolism in 2010.
The investigators randomly assigned 116 sedentary women aged 50-70 years to swimming or walking. Participants completed 3 sessions per week of moderate-intensity exercise under supervision for 6 months then unsupervised for 6 months.
Compared with walking, swimming improved body weight, body fat distribution and insulin resistance in the short term (6 months).
At 12 months swimmers had lost 1.1 kg more than walkers and had lower bad cholesterol levels.
It should be noted that these differences barely reached significance .

Types of Activities And The Intensity of Exercise

My general recommendations on exercise (see here) give examples of different aerobic physical activities and intensities.
These activities are considered Moderate Intensity

  • Walking briskly (3 miles per hour or faster, but not race-walking)
  • Water aerobics
  • Bicycling slower than 10 miles per hour
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Ballroom dancing
  • General gardening Vigorous Intensity

These types of exercise are considered Vigorous Exercise

  • Racewalking, jogging, or running
  • Swimming laps
  • Tennis (singles)
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster
  • Jumping rope
  • Heavy gardening (continuous digging or hoeing, with heart rate increases)
  • Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack

As a rule of thumb, consider 1 minute of vigorous exercise equivalent to 2 minutes of moderate exercise and shoot for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.
Of course one can swim laps at peak intensity or at a very slow, leisurely pace so swimming laps doesn’t always qualify as “vigorous” exercise. Likewise one can play singles tennis languorously and be at a moderate or lower intensity of exercise.
It is entirely possible that the swimmers were working at a higher intensity during their sessions than the walkers and that could be the explanation for the differences seen between the two groups.
Ultimately, the best type of  exercise for heart health is the one you can do and  (hopefully) enjoy on a regular basis.
Antilanguorously Yours,
N.B. Speaking of swimming. A year ago I wrote about longevity and featured Eugene, a 98 year old who could swim the length of a swimming pool underwater. Eugene turns 100 in 2 days.


5 thoughts on “Which Exercise Is Best For Heart Health: Swimming or Walking?”

  1. This may sound like a ridiculous question but I am curious: can cycling (vigorous exercise let’s say) for an hour fives times a week (so five hours a week) cause an enlarged heart over time? I would think this would be healthy exercise and see a lot of my peers (50 somethings) cycling this much or more but am curious. Or is something like a problematically enlarged heart more for true athletes or high blood pressure, etc?

  2. What about walking in water and climbing stairs? If it becomes too hot this summer to walk outdoors, I may resort to walking in our community pool. Given GERD, swimming is not advised. I do climb stairs; my Fitbit has credited me with over 2000 flights since I got it 25 months ago.

  3. The “vigorous exercise” of “bicycling 10 miles per hour or faster” for 5 hours a week (to and from work) wasn’t enough for me to do well on a treadmill test (Bruce protocol). Adding a some hills a few times a week made a big difference.
    I wonder if the other “vigorous exercise” items are also less vigorous than advertised …


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