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.
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.