Swimming is a WONDERFUL exercise for muscles throughout your whole body, but usually isn’t advised as a bone strengthening exercise to prevent osteoporosis. This is because it’s not weight bearing with the beneficial effect that gravity produces on our skeleton.
In water we lose around 5/6 of the body weight that we have on land. This almost weightless environment is tremendously helpful for those doing a workout with achy joints. Good for joints, not so good for bones.
But, the merits of water exercise are many! Besides being a full body activity that engages all of your muscles, as well as your heart, lungs, and circulatory system, it turns out that it may also help bones, if it’s done at the recreational level.
Why Water Exercise May Be Good For Bones
I know that we’ve always heard that swimming doesn’t benefit the skeleton, but some scientists, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC,) now acknowledge that water exercise may be able to help bones. Just because you’re in the water in a weightless environment doesn’t mean that your muscles aren’t giving a good, beneficial tug on the adjacent bones each time they contract when you push off the wall, kick your legs, or pull with your arms. That tug, no matter what exercise produces it, stimulates your bones to stay strong and is why, by the way, strength training with its extra hard pull has such a good effect on bones.
Improve or Maintain the Bone Health of Post-Menopausal Women?
Health Benefits of Water-based Exercise, a 2013 CDC article states, “Water-based exercise can benefit older adults by improving the quality of life and decreasing disability. It also improves or maintains the bone health of post-menopausal women.” —That caught my attention!
The article cited this research study: “The effect of a water exercise program on bone density of postmenopausal women.” Here is the conclusion of that study: “The findings of the present study support the hypothesis that it is possible to plan and execute a water exercise program that has a positive effect on bone status of post-menopausal women.”
Studies of bone health in water polo players who spend a great deal of time training in the weightless environment of water don’t show good results. I once read of a study of male water polo players who had lower bone density in the lower extremities at the end of the season than they had at the beginning. Not good!
Here’s a link to a study with elite young women water polo players. Their conclusion: “…despite training at an elite level, female water polo players did not show any benefits in musculoskeletal health in the lower leg and only limited benefits in the upper body when compared with non-active girls.” Water polo is such a vigorous, demanding sport. What a disappointment and long-term health concern that it only had limited benefit on these elite adolescent athletes’ bones!
4 Ways to Compensate for Time Spent in the Water
I love to swim, so here’s how I minimize the effects of being weightless.
- After getting out of the pond, I do some random stomps here and there when I get my shoes on. I’m talking very random throughout the day because too many impacts are hard on joints even though they might help bones. Stomps aren’t for everyone, especially with fragile bones, so check with your doctor. I like to remind my bones that gravity is back again and that bit of weightlessness during swimming was only temporary.
- I’ll do some squats or very slow motion “step ups and downs” on a bottom stair to work my hip muscles and bones.
- I also try to make sure that I frequently get up and down during the day, especially if I’m doing office work. I’m standing as I type this post with my laptop on a box. Works like a charm!
- I’ll do a few standing back extensions to engage back muscles that are connected to the spine.
It’s not so much that swimming is bad for our bones, but too much time in the water takes us out of gravity and the bone-stimulating environment of land. Our bones need the pressure of gravity to remind them to do their job of staying strong to support our body weight on land. If you want an excellent book on how to use gravity to your benefit, read Sitting Kills, Moving Heals , by Joan Vernikos, PhD.
For strong bones, I would think that a well-rounded strength/resistance training program, plus other weight bearing (on-your-feet cardio) activities, should compensate for not having the beneficial effects of gravity for only a few hours a week with recreational swimming.
Safety Precautions in the Water
If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, be sure to observe any safety precautions while in the water that you would normally observe on land, like keeping good posture with a neutral spine, avoiding deep side bends, or twisting to the point of strain.
See the Moving Safely section of the NOF website for safety tips.
Enjoy your summer water activities and send me a picture! Thanks! –Susie