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The benefits of swimming add to your health in ways that other forms of exercise simply cannot. And although swimming is no longer strictly a summer activity, there are even more benefits when you are able to swim in the sea.

Just how important are the benefits of swimming?

Just how important are the benefits of swimming? Let's take a look at swimming as a treatment for one of the most difficult of all chronic health problems, a form of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis. Then we'll take a look at the benefits of swimming for many more common health conditions.

Swimming as treatment for ankylosing spondylitis. Ankylosing spondylitis is a condition of chronic inflammation of the spine. The inflammation caused by this disease can spread to joints all over the body and even cause bone problems where there are not any joints. This form of arthritis causes constant pain, and the stiffness it brings each and every morning can be a tremendous burden. Most people who have ankylosing spondylitis also become severely depressed.

There are no good pharmaceutical treatments for ankylosing spondylitis, even though modern treatments are better than those available just 10 years ago. For most people with the condition, the way to less pain, better posture, and greater flexibility is exercise. But if you are in real pain from chronic deterioration of your joints, you need to be very selective about the exercise you do. There simply is not enough energy and enough pain medication to spend a lot of time in the gym.

Medical researcher and swimming 

Medical researchers at the Department of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey set out to find whether walking or swimming was the better exercise for people who have ankylosing spondylitis. The doctors recruited 45 volunteers who had the disease and who were aged 18 to 75. They excluded any volunteers who did not know how to swim, and they also excluded any volunteers receiving treatment with the new class of drugs called TNF-alpha blockers. This was to make sure the results of the experiment were due to exercise, not due to the medications.

Then the researchers divided the volunteers into three groups. One group did walking as their form of exercise. Another group did swimming as their form of exercise. A third group did both walking and swimming. The volunteers exercised for minutes a week, three times a week, for six weeks.

All the exercise sessions were 30 minutes long, with a warm up, steady exercise period, and cool down. The walking was "power walking," designed to cause the participants to get just slightly out of breath. The swimming routine was structured in a similar manner, and the researchers used a heated pool (water at a temperature of 32° C/ 90° F). One patient developed a heart problem and had to drop out of the exercise program.

The Turkish researchers discovered that at the very least, none of the exercisers got worse. The only group to get better, however, was the group of swimmers. The most remarkable change in the swimmers was that they were able to breathe better and expand their chests farther. This in turn enabled them to reach farther with their arms. This makes it easier to do things like tying shoes and picking up things off the floor—small victories from the benefits of swimming, but absolutely critical for living well.

The benefits of swimming in other health conditions

The benefits of swimming in other conditions. You don't have to have an arthritic condition like ankylosing spondylitis to enjoy the benefits of swimming. Many other health problems are eased by regular aquatic exercise. Here are just a few of the findings of recent scientific studies of both animals and peoples.

  • A British study found that mothers of young children who live within 2 km (1.2 miles) of a year-round swimming facility were much less likely to get fat. Lower levels of obesity were also observed in their children.
  • Swimming in pools with resistance currents (swimming in place against a jet of water) increases the benefits of low-carbohydrate diets.
  • Swimming helps swimmers respond better to stress by specific changes in protein synthesis in a part of the brain known as the dentate gyrus.
  • Both swimming and soccer help prevent lower back pain in children.
  • Chinese researchers have found that gentle swimming (and also tai chi) do not necessarily help older adults lose weight, but these exercises move the fat to other parts of the body where they do not interfere with blood circulation.
  • In a Lithuanian study of exercise for teenaged girls who have type 1 diabetes, no exercise led to better blood sugar control than swimming.
  • Families that go swimming together are less likely to have overweight children.
  • A study in Marion County, Indiana found that families who live in neighborhoods that have parks and swimming pools were less likely to have children suffering obesity.
  • And for people who enjoy diving, a brief swim at the surface before going down reduces the formation of potentially dangerous gas bubbles in the bloodstream during deeper dives.

Is it better to swim in swimming pools or in the sea?

There is one group of people who sometimes have problems with swimming pools—small children. Exposure to the chlorine used to treat the water in swimming pools is the problem. Children who tend to get allergies are far more likely to develop asthma if they get their swimming time at the local public pool.

For these children, carefully supervised swimming in clean, open water—never taking eyes off the child for a single second to prevent drowning—is a better option. Of course, especially for small children, the benefits of swimming for the child require intense attention by caring adults.

It's also not a good idea for adults to spend a lot of time in heavily chlorinated pools. There has been at least one case in which a man who chose to swim every day in an over-chlorinated pool developed not a lung or eye problem but tooth decay, essentially destroying his teeth in just 27 days. Your neighborhood pool is likely not to be a problem, but it is better to swim in clean natural water than in chlorinated water any day.

  • Ishihara K, Yamada A, Mita Y, Goto A, Ishimi T, Mabuchi H, Inoue K, Fushiki T, Yasumoto K. Improved swimming pool achieves higher reproducibility and sensitivity to effect of food components as ergogenic aids. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009 Jun.55(3):301-8.
  • Karapolat H, Eyigor S, Zoghi M, Akkoc Y, Kirazli Y, Keser G. Are swimming or aerobic exercise better than conventional exercise in ankylosing spondylitis patients? A randomized controlled study. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2009 Dec.45(4):449-57. Epub 2009 Jul 23.
  • Skoffer B, Foldspang A. Physical activity and low-back pain in schoolchildren. Eur Spine J. 2008 Mar.17(3):373-9. Epub 2008 Jan 8.