Swimming and Water Exercise: Great for Rheumatoid Arthritis
I received several comments in response to my recent article about the limited number of people with rheumatoid arthritis who exercise. Some commented that they enjoy walking or other low impact exercises. But others stated that exercise just isn’t an option most of the time because of the constant pain, swelling and lack of energy that they are feeling.
In my last post from February 7, I talked about a land-based basic exercise program called PACE that is geared toward older adults with arthritis. Today, I’d like to offer another alternative - swimming and water exercise (including water walking, water aerobics, hot tub stretching, etc).
Why is swimming good for Rheumatoid Arthritis?
From my perspective, swimming and water aerobics are great because it feels good and my joints don’t swell up afterward. It’s also something that I can do even when I’m having a flare. My shoulders creek a little and my muscles get sore, but I recover usually within a day, much more quickly than I do with harder land-based activities like lifting weights and walking. Also, since I have permanent contractures in both elbows, I’m very conscious of really reaching, working my triceps and stretching my arms during the strokes. Swimming laps builds lung capacity and endurance. And water aerobics does build muscle and really helps me stretch.
The Arthritis Foundation says the following in “Why Water Exercise?”
- "The soothing warmth and buoyancy of warm water make it a safe, ideal environment for relieving arthritis pain and stiffness.
- Immersing in warm water raises your body temperature, causing your blood vessels to dilate and increasing circulation.
- Water exercise is a gentle way to exercise joints and muscles.
- Water supports joints to encourage free movement, and may also act as resistance to help build muscle strength.
- Using a spa adds a component to the therapy - massage. Jet nozzles release warm water and air, massaging your body and helping you relax tight muscles."
For more information see https://www.arthritis.org/water-exercise.php
I also found some interesting tidbits based on information from the Aquatics Exercise Association. First, water has 12 times more resistance than air, so movement in the water helps tone and strengthen muscles and can help improve balance and coordination. Studies have shown that water exercise is weight bearing exercise and it can increase bone density. For people with arthritis, the AEA recommends submerging the joints you’re working to reduce the stress caused by gravity. Their aquatic program guidelines for people with arthritis also recommend warm water, between 84 to 96 degrees F, building up to 20 to 40 minutes sessions as tolerated build up to 3 to 5 days per week. The AEA also recommends changing activities and body positions frequently to avoid excessive joint strain from too many repetitions.
Where can I find a pool or water exercise program?
Many gyms, community centers, YMCA, local city and county recreation programs and senior centers offer water fitness classes, often geared toward people with arthritis. Try contacting your local YMCA, rec center, or your local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation to find water exercise programs in your area For example, I have taken water aerobics through my local county rec department. Also, my current gym is located next to a medical facility. It has a 25 meter lap pool, with extra space for water fitness classes of various levels, including one class geared specifically toward people with arthritis. It also has a small warm water therapy pool that I often see people using for stretching, water resistance exercise and walking or swimming in place.
For people whose physicians recommend regular water exercise, the Arthritis Foundation suggests that people might consider installing a pool or hot tub at their home. Pools and hot tubs can sometimes be deducted from one’s taxes as a medical expense, but an accountant or tax advisor should be consulted.
Christine Miller wrote about rheumatoid arthritis as a Patient Expert for HealthCentral. She was diagnosed at 16 months old with polyarticular juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and has gone through the ebbs and flows of disease activity — many medications, much time spent in physical and occupational therapy, surgeries, and periods of relative remission.