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The Globe and Mail

What's better: 30 minutes of swimming or running?

The action begins Monday at Dr. S. P. Mukherjee Swimming Stadium in Delhi, where 27 Canadians will hit the pool in pursuit of Commonwealth Games gold.

With the arrival of fall in Canada, meanwhile, more than 600,000 people will be heading to indoor pools on any given day - more than double the total from 1992 - according to Statistics Canada.

As a form of regular aerobic exercise, swimming has lots of benefits. It uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously for long periods of time, and is easy on lower-body joints because it doesn't involve bearing body weight. But research on the health-promoting effects of swimming is surprisingly sparse - and some studies now suggest that a half-hour of swimming may not provide the same benefits as a half-hour of comparable land-based exercise.

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The problem is that your body gets a fundamentally different physiological challenge from being horizontal in water compared with being upright on dry land, thanks to the hydrostatic pressure and high thermal conductivity of water, according to Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the University of Texas's Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory.

Dr. Tanaka reviewed current evidence for swimming's effects on cardiovascular health in the journal Sports Medicine last year. He found solid evidence that regular swimming improves control of blood-sugar levels in the body, which reduces the risk of diabetes.

But several studies have found that swimmers tend to have higher blood pressure than other endurance athletes. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Western Australia found that blood pressure actually increased in a group of sedentary older women after a six-month swimming program, possibly because water pressure keeps peripheral blood vessels more constricted than usual during exercise.

But several other studies have not observed the same effect - and there's similar disagreement about whether swimming raises or lowers "good" HDL cholesterol.

The temperature of the water can also make a big difference. University of Florida researchers found that swimmers consumed 44 per cent more calories after exercising in water at 20C than in water at 33C, which may explain why many studies have failed to find weight-loss benefits from swimming regimens.

The conclusion Dr. Tanaka draws from this rather confusing picture is that we can't assume that different forms of exercise produce exactly the same benefits.

Swimming is great for muscles, joints and some (but not all) cardiovascular risk factors. But to get the full array of possible benefits from aerobic activity, you might want to include some land-based exercise in your routine at least once or twice a week.

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World-class race prep

Canadian swimmer and 2007 world champion Brent Hayden's pre-race warm-up:

Start with basic mobility exercises such as swinging the arms around and stretching.

Do 60 crunches and 10 fast push-ups to activate core and arm muscles.

Swim 400 metres at an easy pace, then 300 metres kick, 200 metres arms only, 100 metres individual medley (25 butterfly, 25 backstroke, 25 breaststroke, 25 freestyle).

Swim two sets of 25 metres underwater kick, five metres easy, 15 sprint, five easy.

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Do two 25-metre timed sprints from a dive start.

Do 10 fast push-ups immediately before the start of the race.

Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise at

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About the Author
Jockology columnist

Alex Hutchinson writes about the science of fitness and exercise. A former national-team distance runner and postdoctoral physicist, he is the author of Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. He is also a senior editor at Canadian Running magazine and a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics. More

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