Cycling, swimming or running, which burns the most calories?


Whether you're by the pool or beach, opting for water workouts can be your secret weapon to stay in shape all summer long without the need for lengthy gym sessions — and you'll see better results than you would on the bike

A group of people take part in an aqua aerobics class.
A group of people take part in an aqua aerobics class.SHUTTERSTOCK

We eagerly anticipate summer's arrival throughout the cold, wintry months. However, when it finally rolls around, it often disrupts our routines, particularly where the gym is concerned. The high temperatures and time spent away from home make gearing up for a workout more challenging than usual. That's why it's easier than ever to let good habits slide.

But hey, the heat shouldn't be an excuse to skip exercise. In fact, it's a golden opportunity to turn the beach or pool into your gym and make the most of working out in water. Ruth Gomez, a pro triathlete, trainer, and Sports Science graduate, extols the "countless" benefits of pool-based workouts. They strengthen muscles, improve breathing, alleviate joint discomfort, prevent injuries, promote balance and flexibility, and, most importantly, burn calories.

And they burn a significant amount, more than you would think. While water workouts are simple and adaptable for almost any fitness level, doing them correctly can help you shed pounds as much as or even more than other intense, sweat-inducing exercises as the temperatures rise, such as cycling or running.

Yes, swimming and aerobic exercises in water might feel refreshing and enjoyable, but they're just as effective, if not more, for weight loss as the traditional exercises that come to mind when thinking about diet and fitness. Why? Experts say that it's because these activities require more muscular energy: the natural resistance of water versus air increases muscle engagement, forcing the body to expend more energy for the same movements.

And here's another perk of training in water: it supports up to 90% of your body weight, making you feel lighter, which helps prevent muscle strain and eases the pressure on your spine. "That's why swimming is great for muscle and movement issues," explains Julia Ndocky Ribas, a personal trainer at Club Metropolitan in Madrid.

Water workouts for weight loss

Taking your workouts to the pool is a really great way of maintaining or losing weight during the summer. The feeling of lightness means you're putting in some serious muscular effort that helps burn calories without you feeling the strain. In fact, according to a Harvard University study by Dr. I-Min Lee, a woman weighing 56 kilos burns around 180 calories when swimming gently for 30 minutes. That figure rises to 223 calories for someone weighing 70 kilos and 266 calories at 84 kilos.

However, if the stroke rate increases during those same minutes, the calorie burn skyrockets: someone weighing 56 kilos burns 300 calories in just 30 minutes of moderate swimming, and a whopping 444 calories for an 84kg person. These numbers can also vary depending on the stroke style chosen. For instance, a woman weighing 70kg swimming breaststroke for the same duration will burn around 372 calories, but could exceed 400 calories if she opts for butterfly.

With these figures in mind, Harvard Medical School concludes that it's easier to burn calories in a pool or in the sea than cycling, another sport known for efficient caloric burn. Specifically, a 70-kilo woman cycling moderately for 30 minutes burns 260 calories, a hundred less than swimming for the same duration.

Dr. I-Min Lee concludes that swimming and aquatic aerobic exercises are the best choices for burning calories and toning the body. And if that weren't enough, they're also fantastic for relieving stress, according to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Full-body workouts that don't involve swimming

Besides swimming, there are plenty of other calorie-blasting workouts that you can do in the pool. Here are just a few recommended by Julia Ndocky Ribas:

  1. Aquagym: Gym-style exercises to music, done in a circuit.
  2. Aquaboard: Training on an inflatable board for a high-energy workout or a gentler focus on balance, depending on how the session's designed.
  3. Aquaerobic: A dance and choreography-heavy workout, an aquatic version of a classic aerobics class.

Four simple and effective exercises for you to try when you're next in the pool

For those new to sports, there are simple water-based exercises that anyone can try, like walking laps or running in place, both of which are "effective workouts, especially for those not used to moving in water," according to Ndocky Ribas. And don't forget about squats or lunges, which can be done as static movements with water at waist height or as dynamic jumps at chest height. Here are four basic pool exercises to kick-start your fitness journey:

  1. Walking in water: Simple but effective, and even suitable for those with an aversion to physical activity. To get the most out of this exercise, experts recommend keeping your back straight with your feet flat, taking 10-20 steps forward and backward continuously for 10-15 minutes. Remember, the higher the water level, the more effort you'll exert and calories you'll burn.
  2. Glute-toning squats: Much easier to do in water than at the gym, but equally effective. Keep the water at waist level and aim for multiple sets of 15-20 squats, keeping your back straight.
  3. Bicep burners: When doing exercises to tone arms, ensure the water reaches shoulder height. One of the simplest exercises is to bring your knees to your chest and hold for a few minutes. Or, if you want more intensity, extend your arms underwater and throw punches as if you were boxing, doing 4 sets of 15-20 reps.
  4. Ankle and knee mobility: Water is perfect for working on joint mobility without running the risk of injuries and strain. Simply make circular movements with your ankles and knees while submerged. Again, the higher the water level, the more calories you'll burn.