Swimming vs Walking: Which is the Better Exercise?


Swimming and walking are two of the most popular physical activities across the world. For those that are looking to get the best return on their time investment, however, it can be tough to identify which form of exercise is more effective at instituting healthy change.

Swimming is better than walking for the purposes of weight loss and muscle toning. Swimming has been scientifically proven to burn calories at a faster rate relative to walking, which ultimately forces the body to use up excess fat stores and reveal the hard-earned muscle concealed beneath.

Even though swimming holds several advantages over walking, it is not without fault. These weaknesses are addressed in the subsequent sections, along with the various fitness benefits that walking can offer as well. At the end of the article, we’ll take all of these pros and cons into account when determining what form of exercise fits your personal aspirations and circumstances the best.

The Pros & Cons of Swimming

To start off, we’ll first analyze the various advantages and disadvantages of swimming to get a clear picture of how effective this physical activity really is. Following that, we’ll move on to the advantages and disadvantages of walking to establish a fair basis of comparison.

PRO: Burns a High Amount of Calories Per Session

One major advantage of swimming is the calorie burning potential for a single session in the water. Although swimming and walking are both popular forms of aerobic exercise, there’s an evident winner when it comes to burning the most amount of calories in the shortest period of time.

From the data input into the table below, you can clearly see that swimming is the most efficient at burning calories. The heavier the individual, the more pronounced the difference in calorie burning potential becomes (source 1 & source 2).

Body WeightSlow-Paced SwimmingFast-Paced SwimmingSlow-Paced WalkingFast-Paced Walking
130 lbs413 cal590 cal148 cal295 cal
155 lbs493 cal704 cal176 cal352 cal
180 lbs572 cal817 cal204 cal409 cal
205 lbs651 cal931 cal233 cal465 cal
*The numerical values reflect the amount of calories burned in one hour for both swimming and walking.

The reason that this difference in calorie burning potential is so important is that it can make or break an individual’s weight loss progress. The very basis of weight loss is establishing and sustaining a caloric deficit.

Put simply, a caloric deficit is a dietary situation where an individual is consuming less calories than what their body is expending during a set time period. Since the body is not receiving the nutrients it needs through food and drink, it must access these nutrients elsewhere, namely any nearby fat stores. If a caloric deficit is too extreme, however, the body may have to break down muscle stores as well to fuel essential metabolic functions.

People can put themselves in a caloric deficit in one of two ways:

  • Minimizing Daily Caloric Intake – As less calories are consumed and made available for metabolic functions, the body must turn to fat stores for energy instead.
  • Exercising on a More Frequent Basis – Physical activity increases the body’s demand for calories, so more calories are devoted to refueling the body as opposed to standard metabolic capacities. This results in the body resorting to the breakdown of fat for energy.

For those of you that are reading now, you’re probably opting for the latter option of exercising on a more frequent basis by either swimming or walking. Of the two, swimming is the more effective at creating a caloric deficit because it maximizes the amount of weight loss progress a person can make with the free time that they have.

Few people have the flexibility of schedule to spend hours exercising every day. If a person only has one hour to work with, it would be ideal for them to swim rather than walk to break down as much fat as possible.

PRO: Develops Muscular Tone

Another major benefit that swimming has over walking is the potential for muscular toning. As a quick reference, muscle tone describes how hard a muscle appears at rest. An individual with high muscle tone has muscles that appear rigid and firm, whereas an individual with low muscle tone has muscles that appear to be soft and puffy.

Everyone wants to chase after the elusive “toned” look because of its aesthetic draw. To build muscular tone, it’s not only necessary to have a solid foundation of muscle mass, it’s also necessary to reach a low body fat percentage to reveal this muscular definition. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done.

Swimming is a practical approach to attaining a lean, chiseled appearance because of how effective this activity is at stripping away fat.

As aforementioned, swimming is extremely successful at putting someone in a caloric deficit if they exercise with the appropriate intensity. Very few exercises are able to effectively remove fat at the rate that swimming does.

Aside from lowering body fat percentage, swimming also has a positive effect on muscle building. Swimming activates all major muscle groups in the body, as both the upper body and lower body must work in unison to propel a person through the water. The resistance presented by the water may be sufficient enough to tear muscle fibers and stimulate growth, particularly for individuals who are just starting their fitness journey.

Although swimming may not be the best muscle builder relative to other physical activities—like weightlifting perhaps—it certainly does enough to see noticeable effects on muscular tone. Walking simply does not offer these same toning benefits.

PRO: Opportunity to Improve Aerobic or Anaerobic Fitness

In addition, swimmers have the luxury of switching up the intensity of their workouts to boost either their aerobic fitness or anaerobic fitness.

Recall that aerobic exercise is any workout that involves the use of oxygen for energy. Swimmers may be encased in water, but they rely heavily on oxygen intake to fuel the body. It sounds peculiar, since the majority of people consider swimming to be a water-based sport rather than an oxygen-based, aerobic sport.

Swimmers work themselves at a moderate pace to maximize the amount of distance they can go as well as the time that they can last in the water. This moderate intensity permits oxygen to be delivered to the muscles, which allows the body to use aerobic respiration for energy.

Although swimming is largely seen as an aerobic exercise, there’s still opportunity for anaerobic conditioning, contrary to popular opinion.

Just like running can be subdivided into the aerobic exercise of jogging and the anaerobic exercise of sprinting, so too can the intensity levels of swimming be varied to improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

If a swimmer decides to go maximum effort for a brief period of time to test their speed, this type of swimming is anaerobic. With such a high intensity workout, the body’s demand for oxygen exceeds the supply, so aerobic respiration is not an option. Instead, the body must resort to breaking down any available energy sources stored within the body, such as glucose.

Walking does not have this versatility, since it only involves a low level of intensity. As a result, swimmers have the opportunity to develop a more well-rounded fitness foundation compared to walkers.

CON: Negligible Impact on Bone Density

After having discussed the pros of swimming, let’s move on to the cons. One critical drawback of swimming is that it fails to increase bone density by any noticeable degree.

Since swimming is performed in water, the bones do not experience nearly as much of a weight-bearing load. This lack of positive stress on the bone tissue results in little to no opportunity for bone adaptation. For this reason, bone density remains virtually the same, as there’s no stimuli driving any sort of change in the bone tissue.

This is not much of a problem with land-based physical activities, such as running or jumping, because the force of gravity is in full effect. It is not belittled by water buoyancy.

Swimmers must improve their bone density through alternative methods if this is a major concern. In summary, swimming may be sufficient for boosting muscle and joint health, but it is not the best option for boosting bone health.

CON: Seasonality May Restrict Pool Access

Furthermore, access to swimming pools can also be a source of concern, as not every neighborhood is fortunate to have indoor pools.

If you live in an area with harsh winters, you may encounter some difficulty finding a reliable location to swim that’s close to home. Indoor pools are a lot harder to come by than outdoor pools, so your swimming regimen may come to an abrupt halt by summer’s end.

Even if there are local indoor pools, they typically come at a cost. Pool memberships don’t always come cheap. Such financial costs may dissuade you from sustaining your swimming workouts for long. This in stark contrast to walking, which involves no monetary cost at all.

Plus, indoor pools tend to be much busier in the winter, forcing you to wait for a swimming lane to open up practically every time you hit the pool. Of course, this factor depends on how active your particular pool is, but it shouldn’t be neglected.

All of these seasonal elements can add up and slowly drain the motivation of a swimmer. It may even culminate to a point where they abandon their swimming program completely.

CON: Skin and Hair Irritation Due to Prolonged Pool Exposure

The last major drawback of swimming is the mild skin and hair irritation caused by pool water. Much of this irritation can be attributed to the high concentrations of chlorine found within pools. This chlorine is deliberately included for the purpose of killing bacteria, but it can result in these irritating side effects as well.

As far as skin irritation goes, prolonged pool exposure has been known to cause chlorine rashes. This generally happens in people that are sensitive to chlorine. The symptoms of a chlorine rash may include (source):

  • itchiness
  • redness
  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • scaling

Repeated exposure to chlorine can also have damaging effects on hair. Since chlorine is a form of bleach, it compromises the structural integrity of the hair strands over time by weakening the hair cuticle. Over time, the hair strands become more liable to breakage and split ends (source).

Not only that, but hair pigment will also begin to lighten for people that swim on a regular basis. If you aim to swim week after week, you should take the side effects of chlorine into consideration beforehand, especially if you care deeply about the appearance of your hair!

The Pros & Cons of Walking

PRO: Can Be Done Practically Anywhere at Anytime

To begin, it’s hard for any physical activity to eclipse the convenience factor of walking, as it can be done virtually anywhere.

With other forms of exercise, there are certain preparations that must be done beforehand in order to actually perform the activity. For example, the act of weightlifting requires you to drive to a gym full of weights. To play a game of pickup basketball, you need to find a court and coordinate with others.

These preparations may seem trivial, but there will be some days where you just want to get out and get active immediately, without devoting any time toward driving or organizing a meet-up with friends. Since walking requires little to no preparation whatsoever, it’s a beneficial option for those that want to involve themselves in casual physical activity.

Moreover, it’s relatively easy to build a walking routine into your day. You can walk to and from school, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or even wake up a bit earlier and go for a morning stroll. There aren’t many other exercises that have this adaptability to fit into people’s schedules.

There’s also something to be said of venturing outside and breathing in fresh air. By breaking up your day with an outdoor walk, it’s like hitting the reset button. Such a refreshing perspective is usually not obtained through exercise so easily.

PRO: Ability to Listen and Learn as You Go

Another advantage of walking is the opportunity to effortlessly pair exercise with learning to make your fitness session a more productive, yet enjoyable, experience.

Walkers can easily throw on some headphones and listen to some of the greatest minds the world has to offer, through podcasts and audiobooks. Listening to these narrations take your mind away from the fact that you’re engaging in aerobic exercise. Instead, this background discussion can put you in a meditative, thoughtful state.

These distractions make it far easier to burn additional calories on a daily basis. In fact, this tactic has proven to be extremely useful for those that are just beginning their own personal fitness journey. It can help them to get over the hump and slowly change their lifestyle habits for the better.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I’ve made a conscious effort to go on hour-long morning walks three to four times a week to start my day off right. I’ve found that on the days where I walk in the morning, I’m much more productive in the hours afterward. It seems that a brisk stroll is all that I need to give my day momentum.

Plus, I’ve been able to learn a great deal more about the subject matter that fascinates and carry any resourceful information over to my daily life.

PRO: Positively Impacts Bone Density

In addition, walking has been shown to maintain bone density and deter any gradual bone loss, something that swimming cannot offer.

With walking, the skeletal system is forced to bear the brunt of the weight as you move. This weight-bearing load is sufficient enough to test the integrity of your bones. In the absence of this stimulus, the bones have no reason to sustain the current mass that they do. As a result, bone mass steadily decreases if no such stimulus is put forth.

It’s important to note, however, that walking does not provide enough of a stimulus to significantly boost bone density. Walking only maintains a person’s current bone density. For bone density to increase, the skeletal system would have to undergo extreme stress, like weight overload from lifting for example.

A recent study confirmed this notion, stating that:

“Walking alone did not appear to improve bone mass; however it is able to limit its progressive loss.”

(source)

Bone density is key to long term health, since it wards off the risk of bone fractures as a person ages. So if you want to continue to be physically active later on in life without having to worry about breaking any bones, you may want to consider incorporating walking into your daily routine.

CON: Fewer Calories Burned Relative to Other Physical Activities

As aforementioned, walking burns calories at a considerably slower rate compared to other forms of exercise, like swimming for instance.

Walking is considered to be the most leisurely form of exercise for a reason. Its low intensity may not be physically taxing, but this also means that it will not accelerate weight loss nearly as much.

Say, for example, that you had the goal of burning at least 300 calories during your workout session. To reach this goal, it would take considerably longer if you were to walk instead of swim. Most people don’t have much spare time to waste, so spending an additional half hour to reach this goal may not even be an option.

In short, if you’re hard pressed for time, walking will not be the best form of exercise for you to burn calories. It would be far more efficient for you to explore other aerobic activities.

CON: Results in Little to No Muscular Growth

Furthermore, very little muscle building results from walking because the training stimulus does not provide enough resistance to tear the muscle fibers. Muscular growth is contingent on this. Otherwise, the muscles will not be given the opportunity to recover and come back larger than they were before.

If muscle bulking is your primary goal, walking should not be your primary means of achieving this goal. Rather, you should engage in activities like powerlifting or bodybuilding to maximize muscular growth.

Walking is best served for the purposes of weight loss, not adding muscle mass. Although swimming may not be the best muscle builder out there, it’s undoubtedly the better of the two when it comes to increasing muscle size.

CON: Not Ideal for Individuals with Chronic Joint Pain

Lastly, individuals who suffer from chronic joint pain will likely not be able to walk on a consistent basis, since the pressure on the joints may be too much for them to handle.

The weight-bearing load of walking may have its benefits in maintaining bone density, but it certainly does not fare well for those with poor joint health. The sustained pressure concentrated on the knee and ankle joints that occurs with each and every step may be discomforting, and possibly even unbearable, for these individuals.

A far superior option would be to swim rather than walk. The buoyancy effects of the water take the pressure off the joints, allowing people with chronic joint pain to move about relatively pain-free. Few other activities have this luxury, since most other popular forms of exercise are land-based.

If you know that your knee and ankle joints are in poor condition, it’s highly recommended that you try swimming over walking to keep the pain to a minimum.

Which Form of Exercise Should You Do?

Pros of SwimmingCons of SwimmingPros of WalkingCons of Walking
burns a high amount of calories per sessionnegligible impact on bone densitycan be done practically anywhere at anytimefewer calories burned relative to other physical activities
develops muscular toneseasonality may restrict pool accessability to listen & learn as you goresults in little to no muscular growth
opportunity to improve aerobic or anaerobic fitnessskin & hair irritation due to prolonged pool exposurepositively impacts bone densitynot ideal for individuals with chronic joint pain

Having talked about each of the individual pros and cons of walking versus swimming, it really boils down to one main question: Which form of exercise should you do?

Ultimately, the answer lies with you and your personal fitness aspirations. Depending on your fitness tendencies and preferences, your answer to this question may differ from someone else’s.

If your overarching goal is to lose weight and tone your muscles in the most timely manner possible, swimming will be the ideal option. On the other hand, if you want to take a more relaxed approach to your fitness journey to get your feet off the ground, walking will be your best bet.

In the event that you can’t decide between the two, I advise you to do both! This way, you can reap the benefits of both forms of exercise and diversify your fitness background even further. There should be no reason to abstain from either physical activity if you truly enjoy each form of exercise in its own right.

Whatever you choose, just go out and get active! There’s no wrong answer here, so long as you push yourself and take one more step toward the healthier version of you.

Sources: 1 2 3 4 5

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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