You might have heard swimming described as a “lifetime fitness activity,” but do you know what that means? Swimming earned its reputation as being a lifelong sport because it is a whole-body aerobic workout that can be performed by people of all ages. It is a low-impact exercise that places minimal stress on your joints and spine while building muscle and improving cardiovascular health.
The same reasons that make swimming a lifetime sport also make it an ideal form of exercise for people who have chronic or acute back problems. While high-impact sports such as running place strain on your back and spine, the buoyancy of the water supports your body while you’re swimming, counteracting the effects of gravity. Whether you already have back pain or just want to prevent future back problems, swimming is the best form of exercise for spine health.
Benefits of Swimming for Back and Bone Health
Swimming is an ideal exercise for people of all ages and body types—and that includes people at risk for spine or back injury, such as the elderly, obese, or menopausal.
- Elderly people who swim are able to maintain their strength and agility, decreasing risk of injury and thereby promoting mobility and independence.
- Because the water supports your body, swimming is ideal for people that find load-bearing exercises like running uncomfortable, such as those who are obese or arthritic.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, postmenopausal women who are at increased risk for bone loss or osteoporosis can help maintain their bone health through swimming.
Whether you fall into one of those categories or not, swimming has indisputable benefits for spine and bone health:
- Swimming strengthens back, shoulder, arm, and neck muscles. No matter what stroke you do, you’ll be working your back, shoulder, arm, and neck muscles. By strengthening the muscles that support your spine, you’ll be able to walk with better posture, placing less strain on your spinal column on land.
- Water pressure is evenly distributed. On land, gravity causes pressure to concentrate in your joints, leading to injuries in knees and hips—the body parts that receive the most burden during aerobic land exercise. In the water, pressure is evenly distributed, which not only protects your bones and joints, but also aids in faster muscle development by providing greater resistance.
- It’s gentle on your back. Unlike every other form of exercise, swimming is done in a horizontal position. It gives your back a break from sitting at a desk all day and avoids the strain other sports can place on your spine—for example, the rough impact of running or bending over the handlebars of a bicycle.
In addition to the spine health benefits, swimming is just plain good for you. As a whole-body workout, swimming is one of the few exercises that combines cardio and strength-training into one. Studies show that swimming builds lung-capacity (a marker of aerobic health, which is linked to longer lifespans and lifted moods) while toning all of your body’s major muscle groups. Like other aerobic exercises, swimming also strengthens your immune system, reduces your risk for chronic disease, and helps maintain a healthy weight.
How to Start Swimming
While swimming is certainly less hard on your body than other forms of exercise, you still want to start slow and build up to a more challenging routine. Swimming with proper form is essential for preventing injury and protecting your spine.
If you’re brand new to swimming, it might be smart to start by attending a water aerobics class to build up your comfort and confidence in the water. From there, you can start swimming gentle laps for 30 minutes at a time, 3 days a week. Take it easy and focus on your form. The speed will come with time and practice as you build up your strength.
Whatever you decide to do, commit to doing it regularly. A Japanese study of 35 people with lower back pain who participated in a 6-month aquatic exercise program found that those who attended at least twice weekly improved more than those who only attended once a week.
Note: Before you start swimming, schedule an evaluation with your doctor. Back pain is a complex issue with many possible causes. Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend engaging in physical therapy before you are cleared to swim.
The Most Spine-Friendly Swim Strokes
There is no single most spine-friendly swim stroke. Each of the four strokes has pros and cons based on the underlying cause of your back pain.
Freestyle and backstroke are not recommended for those with lower back pain or disc damage. The repetitive rotation of the lower back in these strokes can worsen pain related to your discs or lower back.
Butterfly and breaststroke both cause your lower spine to arch backward in the course of the stroke, which can place stress on the facet joints in your spinal column. Over time, these strokes may exacerbate pain related to the facet joints.
More important than the stroke you choose is the form you use while you swim. Regardless of the stroke, failing to use proper form can put your back and spine at risk for damage. New swimmers should consider scheduling a few sessions with a coach or trainer to perfect their form before swimming on their own.
As a lifetime sport, the earlier you incorporate swimming into your workout routine, the more benefits you’ll experience. If you keep at it and take good care of your spine, you might be swimming well into your 80s and 90s!