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Health Benefits of Water-based Exercise

Man starting a race

Swimming is the fourth most popular sports activity in the United States and a good way to get regular aerobic physical activity 1. Just two and a half hours per week of aerobic physical activity, such as swimming, bicycling, or running can decrease the risk of chronic illnesses 2, 3. This can also lead to improved health for people with diabetes and heart disease 2. Swimmers have about half the risk of death compared with inactive people 3. People report enjoying water-based exercise more than exercising on land 4. They can also exercise longer in water than on land without increased effort or joint or muscle pain 5, 6.


Water-based Exercise and Chronic Illness


Water-based exercise can help people with chronic diseases. For people with arthritis, it improves use of affected joints without worsening symptoms 7. People with rheumatoid arthritis have more health improvements after participating in hydrotherapy than with other activities 8. Water-based exercise also improves the use of affected joints and decreases pain from osteoarthritis 9.


Water-based Exercise and Mental Health


Water-based exercise improves mental health. Swimming can improve mood in both men and women 10. For people with fibromyalgia, it can decrease anxiety and exercise therapy in warm water can decrease depression and improve mood 11, 12. Water-based exercise can improve the health of mothers and their unborn children and has a positive effect on the mothers’ mental health 13. Parents of children with developmental disabilities find that recreational activities, such as swimming, improve family connections 14.


Water-based Exercise and Older Adults


Water-based exercise can benefit older adults by improving the quality of life and decreasing disability 15. It also improves or maintains the bone health of post-menopausal women 16.


A Good Choice


Exercising in water offers many physical and mental health benefits and is a good choice for people who want to be more active. When in the water, remember to protect yourself and others from illness and injury by practicing healthy and safe swimming behaviors.


  1. US Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. Arts, Recreation, and Travel: Participation in Selected Sports Activities 2009  [PDF - 2 pages]
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans: Be active, healthy, and happy! In Chapter 2: Physical Activity Has Many Health Benefits. Last verified on December 23, 2009.
  3. Chase NL, Sui X, Blair SN. 2008. Swimming and all-cause mortality risk compared with running, walking, and sedentary habits in men. Int J of Aquatic Res and Educ. 2(3):213-23.
  4. Lotshaw AM, Thompson M, Sadowsky S, Hart MK, and Millard MW. 2007. Quality of life and physical performance in land- and water-based pulmonary rehabilitation. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehab and Prev. 27:247-51.
  5. Broman G, Quintana M, Engardt M, Gullstrand L, Jansson E, and Kaijser L. 2006. Older women’s cardiovascular responses to deep-water running. Journal of Aging and Phys Activ. 14:29-40.
  6. Cider A, Svealv BG, Tang MS, Schaufelberger M, and Andersson B. 2006. Immersion in warm water induces improvement in cardiac function in patients with chronic heart failure. Eur J Heart Fail. 8(3):308-13.
  7. Westby MD. 2001. A health professional’s guide to exercise prescription for people with arthritis: a review of aerobic fitness activities. Arthritis Care and Res. 45(6):501-11.
  8. Hall J, Skevington SM, Maddison PJ, and Chapman K. 1996. A randomized and controlled trial of hydrotherapy in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Care Res. 9(3):206-15.
  9. Bartels EM, Lund H, Hagen KB, Dagfinrud H, Christensen R, Danneskiold-Samsøe B. 2007. Aquatic exercise for the treatment of knee and hip osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 4:1-9.
  10. Berger BG, and Owen DR. 1992. Mood alteration with yoga and swimming: aerobic exercise may not be necessary. Percept Mot Skills. 75(3 Pt 2):1331-43.
  11. Tomas-Carus P, Gusi N, Hakkinen A, Hakkinen K, Leal A, and Ortega-Alonso A. 2008. Eight months of physical training in warm water improves physical and mental health in women with fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial. J Rehabil Med. 40(4):248-52.
  12. Gowans SE and deHueck A. 2007. Pool exercise for individuals with fibromyalgia. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 19(2):168-73.
  13. Hartmann S and Bung P. 1999. Physical exercise during pregnancy—physiological considerations and recommendations. J Perinat Med. 27(3):204-15.
  14. Mactavish JB and Schleien SJ. 2004. Re-injecting spontaneity and balance in family life: parents’ perspectives on recreation in families that include children with developmental disability. J Intellect Disabil Res. 48(Pt 2):123-41.
  15. Sato D, Kaneda K, Wakabayashi H, and Nomura T. 2007. The water exercise improves health-related quality of life of frail elderly people at day service facility. Qual Life Res. 16:1577-85.
  16. Rotstein A, Harush M, and Vaisman N. 2008. The effect of water exercise program on bone density of postmenopausal Women. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 48(3):352-9.

 
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