It is common knowledge by now that swimming is a fantastic way to burn calories and shed those pounds. However, perhaps you aren’t the greatest swimmer or you don’t have access to a large enough pool, so swimming laps is not a good option for you. Whatever your situation, you might be wondering how effective it is to simply tread water for exercise instead.
How many calories does treading water burn? According to various sources, treading water can burn, on average, 100-150 calories every 10 minutes. The exact amount of calories burned can differ based on numerous factors such as your body weight, the intensity of your treading, the water temperature, your treading technique, and more. Depending on how you manipulate these factors, it’s possible you could burn even more calories than average. Treading water burns a similar amount of calories as swimming does.
If this sounds too good to be true, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Water provides 12-15 times more resistance than air which helps you burn up to 3.5 times the amount of calories as walking briskly on land for the same amount of time. Not only that, but the pool will feel much more relaxing to exercise in than outdoors in the scorching sun. It’s the same reason why scuba diving is also such a good way to lose weight. Learn more about how treading water can help you stay lean and healthy by reading the rest of this article.
Factors affecting calories burned by treading water
Your body weight has a major impact on how many calories you’ll burn while treading water. All other factors being equal, it’s not hard to imagine that a 120 pound woman would burn less calories than a 200 pound man because of the sheer size difference. In this example, the larger body of the man would burn up more calories just to function, and staying afloat would require more exertion to move the larger body against the water resistance.
This is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to swimming. In general, a larger individual will simply burn more calories by doing the same exercise for the same amount of time compared to a smaller individual. The end result is that a larger person would burn more calories under the same conditions.
Despite our comments on body weight above, being heavier does not necessarily mean that treading water would be more intense for that individual. We have to factor in the ratio of fat to lean mass you have, not just your total weight when considering calories burned.
For example, let’s compare two men who both weigh 200 pounds who are treading water at the same speed for the same amount of time. One man has a body fat percentage of only 10% (leaner than average), and the other has a body fat of 40% (obese). In this example and in general, a leaner man would struggle to stay afloat and therefore exert themselves more, ultimately burning more calories because muscle doesn’t float but fat does. Why?
The reason is that muscle is much more dense than water, and therefore it sinks in the water. Fat, on the other hand, is buoyant, meaning it can float. If you are a plus-size individual and you thought that you couldn’t swim or even tread water, think again. You may actually have it a lot easier than someone who is leaner, which is also why there’s no maximum weight limit for scuba diving. On top of that, the weightless environment of being underwater means that there is no stress on your joints. Swimming and treading water are a couple of the best low-impact ways for plus-size individuals to lose weight.
Intensity of treading
You can make your workout more difficult (and therefore cause more calories to be burned) by adjusting how fast and hard you are treading water. For instance, you might want to tread water slowly but steadily, opting to tread water for longer without taxing your muscles or cardiovascular system too much.
Conversely, you could tread water by alternating between intervals of high intensity where you go all out treading as fast and hard as you can for 30 seconds, then switch to floating on your back for 30 seconds to recover before resuming intense treading. If done correctly, you only need about 10-15 minutes before you feel like your energy’s all spent. This is known as high intensity interval training, and it is a great way to quickly give yourself one hell of a workout if you’re short on time and build some muscle.
Since we are on the topic of treading water to burn calories, the purpose is not to be efficient with your treading technique. In fact, you want to be as inefficient as possible to make things challenging, and therefore you will burn more calories.
For instance, the frog kick done in combination with arms pushing in sync with the legs is one of the most challenging ways to tread water, but the benefit is that you will burn the highest number of calories.
Since our goal is fat loss, the very efficient eggbeater kick with sculling of the arms actually becomes a “bad” way to tread water since it burns fewer calories.
For similar reasons as to why someone who has a higher body weight burns more calories, taller people will generally burn more calories than people shorter than them as well.
The reason is that longer arms and legs will be subject to more water resistance. Additionally, a taller person has to tread faster to achieve the same number of hand and leg motions in the same timeframe, resulting in more calories burned.
Another factor to keep in mind is that a taller person needs a bigger upthrust to keep their head above water. In order to have a higher upthrust, you will need to tread harder which causes you to burn more calories.
The longer you tread water, the more calories you’ll burn. Going back to what we mentioned in the Intensity section, someone who treads water slowly for a longer period of time can burn more calories than someone who does short bursts of high intensity interval training.
High intensity training is extremely exhausting and one cannot keep it up for as long before reaching total exhaustion. Despite burning more calories in the short term, high intensity training will not be as good for burning calories as somebody who treads water slowly but over a longer period of time.
That said, treading water can be quite boring if it’s not intense. It’s like the difference between a jog that lasts for 30+ minutes or a shorter, more exciting one run that alternates between all out sprinting and walking. You may not feel motivated enough to tread water for 30+ minutes (with some breaks in between, of course). Also, you will never really push your body to be explosive which can be useful if you ever plan on swimming in open water and need to swim against strong waves.
However, if you have all the time in the world and the patience to go along with it, and your goal is burning the maximum amount of calories before your body fatigues beyond the point of recovery for that workout, then slow and steady wins this race.
Water is a lot cooler than our body temperature, even “warm” water. What you need to know is that water is 25 times more effective than air at conducting heat away from our bodies. That means that, as long as the water temperature is colder than your internal body temperature, it’s actually slowly causing your core temperature to drop. It’s the reason why if you spend too long in the pool, your lips will turn blue and you’ll end up shivering.
In an attempt to fight this, your body will naturally go through a process known as thermoregulation, which is when it tries to maintain its core temperature despite the cold affecting it. Since most swimming pools have a temperature between 25 to 28°C (77-82°F), and your internal body temperature is around 37°C (98.6°F), your body will need to generate 9-12°C heat to maintain its core temperature.
Heat generation is possible by burning calories (energy). The greater the difference between your surroundings and the body temperature, the higher the number of calories burned, but obviously to a limit. If losing weight was as easy as just staying cold, then more people would be lean. That said, the pool water is definitely cold enough to cause thermoregulation, and it’s also an activity that burns calories on its own, so it’ll help you shed those pounds.
Additional calorie burning tips
Now that you know the main factors which affect how many calories you burn while treading water, you can begin playing with these variables to achieve better results. Below, we have provided some ways you can burn more calories while treading water.
One way you can increase the intensity of a workout is to do things faster. In the same way that a jogger might go from a light jog to a moderate jog, you can tread lightly and then get progressively faster. Naturally, faster and harsher movements means you will burn calories faster in the same timeframe.
It also means you’ll need to take breaks faster and more often than before. You should push yourself but not at the expense of your safety which is always a concern for any water activity.
Instead of altering the speed of your training, you could increase the intensity by simply treading water for longer. Let’s say that your training normally consists of these intervals: 10 minutes of treading water followed by 5 minutes of rest. A solid workout would be to repeat this process three times, for a total time of 30 minutes spent treading water and 10 minutes of rest (2 x 5 minutes; after the final interval treading water you can rest as long as you want, so we won’t count that).
You can alter your training in different ways. For instance, you could add another interval and do 40 minutes (4 x 10 minutes) of treading water with 15 minutes of rest (3 x 5 minutes, not including the final rest interval). You can change it up so that your “rest” is just you floating on your back in the water so you never need to leave the water.
Alternatively, you could try treading water for longer than 10 minutes at a time; let’s say you want to tread for 12-15 minutes at a time, or you want to go as long as you can until you reach exhaustion with no breaks in between. This is good for training your endurance. As you can see, there are plenty of ways you can change your workout by adjusting the time spent doing it.
Tread in colder water
We explained that your body will try to retain its core body temperature by burning calories in a process known as thermoregulation. Thankfully, even pool water is cold enough to cause thermoregulation to occur, plus swimming in lukewarm water will probably not feel very good even though it’s “safer.”
That said, you can try looking for a swimming pool that uses water that is a bit colder. Alternatively, you could completely exit the water and walk around. As you’ll no doubt realize, when you’re soaking wet and you feel a slight breeze, it will feel significantly colder than usual. This phenomenon is known as wind chill and you can use it to your advantage by forcing your body to burn even more calories to stay warm. Be very careful that you don’t end up too cold.
Lastly, you can just try treading water outdoors where the temperatures will no doubt be even colder. Just make sure that you have a way to quickly warm yourself up, such as a hot drink, so you don’t end up accidentally giving yourself hypothermia.
Change up your programming
You might not be familiar with the word “programming” used in this context, but it’s basically how you structure your training. In the “Tread Longer” section, we gave a pretty good example of what programming is like, however we limited it to only adjusting the variable of time. You can tweak more than one variable at a time.
As we mentioned, there are many factors that you can change: aside from time, intensity, water temperature, and treading technique, you can make things more difficult by going to a wave pool or wear a dive belt with a few dive weights.
For instance, you could visit a wave pool (a pool that simulates swimming against waves) and try treading water there. Wave pools are the closest you can get to the real thing while still staying in a safe and controlled environment. This suggestion might seem somewhat risky, but there will be lifeguards on duty so even if something goes wrong, you have backup.
This next suggestion is also somewhat risky, but you might want to consider wearing a scuba diving weight belt with a quick release system and load it up with dive weights. By adding more (non-buoyant) weight for you to tread against, you once again increase the intensity of your training session. You don’t need very much extra weight, even just adding a few extra pounds is plenty. Since dive weights are essential for scuba diving, if you already do that for a hobby, then you definitely have some of them lying around.
Furthermore, the quick release system on the weight belt will allow you to immediately unload the weight belt if you are having difficulty staying afloat. Since you’re in the pool, you can retrieve the weights afterwards from the bottom and you won’t lose them permanently, unlike in actual scuba diving. Also, again, if you’re in the pool, there will be lifeguards on duty.
Lastly, you can try a water treading technique you haven’t done before, preferably one that is not as effective which means you will have to work harder to stay afloat.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, when you’re training, you want to make things more difficult and inconvenient so that your body can get used to the difficulty and overcome it. This will result in you burning more calories because of the increased intensity of your workouts. By playing around with these variables, you can make something as simple as treading water into a legitimately tough workout that could even surpass conventional methods of exercise (i.e. walking, running, cycling).
Last update on 2021-10-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API