Freestyle Fitness

There's no kinder, gentler place to work out than in the gravity-defying embrace of a pool of water. Swimming is easy on your joints, burns tons of calories, and makes you feel like a kid on summer vacation, all while giving you grown-up fitness and muscle tone.

Water is about 12 times as dense as air, so each stroke and kick through it is a mini strength-training exercise. When you swim, every muscle in your body is called into action as you push against the water's resistance. What's more, regular swimming can make you more flexible, something active women struggle with as they get older. Since you weigh only 10 to 15 percent of your land weight in the water, your arms and legs feel lighter and your range of motion increases as you move. Swimming also lengthens your body to its fullest potential, strengthening and stretching otherwise tight, shortened muscles.

The old myth that swimming doesn't burn off fat because your heart doesn't work as hard and your body hangs on to your excess "insulation" in the cool water is just that—a myth. True, your working heart rate can be reduced by as many as 17 beats—or by 10 to 15 percent of your normal working rate on land. But that's because the force of the water actually assists your circulation in helping your heart do its job, and your body temperature is lower in the water, which automatically lowers your heart rate.But that doesn't mean you're not getting a workout. Your lungs actually work harder against the pressure of the water, and your muscles put in overtime keeping you afloat. As a result, you're burning as many calories and conditioning your heart just as well as you would if you were doing most dry land exercises. Your lungs are getting an even better workout.

Swimming is the best way to boost a sagging butt. You see those tight buns in the tank suits of pro swimmers because every kick is powered by the glutes; every lap firms and lifts those muscles. Keep up this butt-building and fat-burning exercise, and you just might find yourself breaking out that least for private viewings!

* Excerpted from Perfectly Fit by Selene Yeager (Rodale Inc., 2001).

Getting Started

The first thing you need is a place to swim. For most women, the easiest solution is the local YWCA. For a minimal membership fee, most health clubs will allow you access to their pools. And general lap-swimming times are plentiful.

You'll also need a suit. This is the point where many women say, "Thanks, but no thanks." Relax; we're not talking about a flesh-flashing, butt-baring bikini. We're talking about an athletic, supportive swimsuit. You can even find boy-cut styles that look like shorts. Still feeling body-conscious? One trip to the pool will cure you. You won't see a bunch of bathing beauties; you'll see adult women who look just like you, who are there to get in some laps and get on with their lives.

In addition to a swimsuit, you'll need some other accessories, including:

Because they're cheap and they save your eyes from the irritating effects of chlorine, swimming goggles are a must. You'll also see better while you're doing your laps.

Swim Cap
Although it's not a necessity (though some public pools request it), a swimming cap is a definite nicety. If your hair is long, a cap will keep it from tangling. No matter what the length, it'll protect your tresses from the chemicals in the water, which can dry or discolor hair. It's a good idea to look for a silicone cap. It won't pull your hair like a plain rubber one would.

The Usuals

Don't forget a towel for drying off and a water bottle for keeping yourself hydrated (yes, you can get dehydrated in the water).
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