Swimming as a Therapeutic Exercise

Senior man swimming in outdoor pool, surface view

Swimming is the third most popular sports activity in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it’s more than just a fun way to stay cool in summer. Water therapy has many physical and mental health benefits for all ages, from the very young to the very old. If you’re looking for a low-impact exercise in a controlled environment to treat and prevent painful health conditions, then swimming may be right for you.

General Benefits

Swimming can help improve your flexibility, strength, circulation and lung capacity. When you exercise in water, 90 percent of your body is buoyant, which takes the stress off your joints, states the U.S. Water Fitness Association. Water also provides up to 14 times more resistance on land as you exercise and helps disperse body heat to avoid overheating. Many doctors and physical therapists recommend swimming to their patients for medical problems and following surgery. It’s particularly helpful if you use a wheelchair, crutches or braces on land, since they often aren’t required while you’re in the pool.

Arthritis and Fibromyalgia

The buoyancy of water supports joints while encouraging a full, free range of movement. Heated pools are especially helpful for arthritis and fibromyalgia patients, because the warmth helps relax muscles and diminish pain and stiffness. Warm water also causes blood vessels to dilate and increase circulation. People with rheumatoid arthritis have greater improvement in joint tenderness and in knee range of movement with hydrotherapy than with other forms of exercise. Health benefits for aching joints are long-lasting, according to a study published in 2002 in the “Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology,” which found fibromyalgia patients still had improvements in symptoms and physical and social function up to 24 months after a hydrotherapy program.

Back Problems

Researchers in Finland who conducted a review of studies on the effects of therapeutic swimming exercise found that it can be an effective therapy for back pain. Their results, published in “Clinical Rehabilitation” in January 2009, showed that swimming was potentially beneficial to patients suffering from general chronic low back pain and pregnancy-related low back pain. A separate study in Brazil, published in 2005 in the journal “Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte,” found that swimming can help in rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injuries by improving their ability to bathe and dress themselves and restoring some muscle strength and motor skills.

Heart Disease

Physical exercise training in warm water improves exercise capacity and muscle function in patients with chronic heart failure, without adverse cardiovascular effects, according to a study published in the "European Journal of Heart Failure" in 2003. Researchers in Sweden found that CHF patients also improved their muscle endurance in performing knee extensions and heel-lifts and showed greater shoulder flexibility than non-swimmers. Because heart disease is unpredictable and every case is different, check with your doctor before starting a swimming therapy regimen if you have heart disease.

Peripheral Neuropathy

People with diabetes often suffer from neuropathy, or nerve damage, to their extremities, with symptoms that can include pain; tingling; numbness; and loss of feeling in their hands, arms, feet and legs. A group of scientists in Turkey studied laboratory rats with diabetic peripheral neuropathy to investigate the protective and therapeutic effects of swimming. Their research, published in “Journal of Endocrinology Investigations” in 2008, showed that swimming therapy promoted the loss of excess body weight, which is a contributing factor in diabetes, and also helped restore muscle and nerve activity and motor skills.