Exercises for Arthritis: Swimming

Exercise is important for everyone but when you have arthritis, it’s essential. That’s easier said than done when your joints and muscles feel as if they’re filled with broken glass. One exercise that is virtually pain-free is swimming…and with the variety of water exercises, swimming means more than just doing laps!

I know, I know…you’re sick to death of hearing about how you need to exercise. Not only do I not blame you, I can empathize. But before you click on another link, let me share some facts with you:

Exercises for Arthritis: Swimming

  • RA attacks not only joints but weakens muscles; weaker muscles can lead to joint injury
  • RA contributes to osteoporosis
  • Corticosteroids and other drugs used to treat RA and definite causes of osteoporosis
  • If you have RA and you’re sedentary, you are less fit, weaker, less flexible, have more fatigue and more pain

That’s the bad news. The good news is, if you exercise regularly:

  • You prevent muscle loss and increase strength, protecting joints
  • Bones are strengthened; osteoporosis can be prevented and is some cases, actually reversed
  • Stamina is increased; fatigue decreased
  • Weight control is easier, taking stress off of your joints
  • You have less pain and stiffness
  • Some studies suggest that exercise may be as effective as Prozac in combating depression
  • People who are physically active are healthier and live longer…especially if you have arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a high-maintenance disease. As such, not one, not two, but three types of exercise are needed to keep you in good shape:

Improves heart, lung and muscle function; benefits for weight control, mood and general health. Examples include: swimming, walking, bicycling, low or no-impact aerobic dance.

Careful range-of-motion (ROM) exercises, gently stretching your muscles and joints. Examples include: yoga, Pilates, tai chi.

Muscle conditioning/strengthening
Careful, supervised (at least, in the beginning) use of weight machines, free weights or other resistance exercises.

The terrific thing about swimming is that it takes weight off of painful joints, making it a virtually pain-free exercise. Even so, if you haven’t been active, you should always check with your rheumatologist and/or physical therapist before undergoing an exercise regimen. Start slowly; work your way up to additional repetitions or laps—your goal is moderate exertion. A good rule of thumb is that if exercise causes pain for more than one hour, then you’ve overdone it. Other signs to watch for are:

  • unusual or persistent fatigue
  • increased weakness
  • decreased range of motion
  • increased joint swelling
  • continuing pain


Swimming/Water Exercise


Some experts argue that you don’t burn many calories swimming because you never work up enough of a sweat; others argue that since aerobic exercise helps the body burn calories at an accelerated rate hours afterward, that it does. Either way, water exercise has many benefits:

  • Improved strength and flexibility
  • better muscular endurance and balance
  • a stronger heart
  • enhanced physique
  • improved circulation
  • rehabilitation for healing muscles/ recovery from accidents or injuries
  • weight control (maybe)
  • relief from stress and tension
  • increased energy

If you’re not a member of a health club and your local community center doesn’t have a pool, check the YMCA or YWCA. You can also contact the Arthritis Foundation for their Chapter Directory of water classes to locate a class near you. Once you find a class, make sure that the pool is heated (83-88 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal) and that the class is taught by a certified instructor.


Types of Water Exercise

Water Therapy/Rehabilitation
Procedures in the water implemented for specific clinical purposes. These are the type of exercises either performed with a physical therapist or recommended by one. A great way to start for people recovering from injury/surgery, severe RA or if you’ve been sedentary for a long time.

Specific slow movements done and held for a time after war up and at the end of workout to stretch hard-worked muscles and to prevent soreness. Warm-ups and stretching is especially important for people with RA, since they are prone to stiffness.

Flexibility Training
Large moves using a full range of motion and full body stretches. Another good choice for beginners.

Water Yoga and Relaxation
Gentle, easy-flowing movement with water as a relaxation medium. Yoga is terrific for combating arthritic stiffness; relaxation techniques are important for anyone battling a chronic illness. It reduces stiffness, tension and may even lessen pain.

Wall Exercises
Using pool wall for support to isolate various parts of the body. Often used in combination with other forms of water exercise.

Water Walking/Jogging
Using many types of steps and arm movements in waist to chest-deep water. Gives the same benefits as on land without the fear of impact injuries. Water provides resistance to make workout even more effective. However, if you have significant pain or deformity in your feet—particularly the metatarsals—then this class is not for you.

Water Aerobics
Full body rhythmic moves in shallow or deep water. Terrific cardiovascular benefits. Again, if you have problems with your feet, this might not be the class for you.

Deep Water Exercise
Movements of any speed, done where feet do not touch bottom. Flotation belts and devices are used. An ideal alternative for those with arthritic feet.

Deep Water Jogging/Running
Jogging and/or running at a depth where feet do not touch bottom. Flotation devices are used with various drills, methods and running styles. Another good class for those with arthritic feet.

Water Toning/Strengthening 
Movements of upper and lower body using water resistance and/or equipment to strengthen, firm and sculpt muscles.

Lap Swimming
…of course. Many public pools have special lanes set aside for therapeutic swimming, marked “slow” or otherwise indicating that the participants will not be competing for Olympic gold. Unless you are a seasoned swimmer, you should start out small, performing only one or two laps until you can complete them without straining or panting. Gradually increase the number of laps until you can swim for twenty minutes, 3 times a week.

Gear, Gadgets and Toys (all optional except for the suit!)

  • A bathing suit (please!)
  • Goggles 
    If you wear contacts, make sure that there is a strong seal by pressing to your face before buying. There should be a strong suction, even when dry.
  • Kick boards 
    Great for building up lower body strength.
  • Water resistance equipment
    Bands, floating weights (yes, such a thing exists), etc for strengthening.
  • Mask and snorkel 
    If turning your head to breathe strains your neck, use a mask and snorkel for breathing. Great for arthritic necks!Like it or not, those of us with RA must exercise (sigh). Our joints, our muscles and our bones demand that we do. Swimming is one of the few exercises that allows us to exercise pain-free. If you are sedentary, out-of-shape or in severe pain, swimming may be one of the few exercises for you until you become strong enough to try other forms of exercise. In the meantime, it’s relaxing and fun, so enjoy!

The information contained in or made available through This Site cannot replace or substitute for the services of trained professionals in the medical field. We do not recommend any treatment, drug, food or supplement. You should regularly consult a doctor in all matters relating to physical or mental health, particularly concerning any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.

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