Swimming and Water Exercise: Great for Rheumatoid Arthritis

by Christine Miller Patient Expert

Advances in treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have made a tremendous difference in the ability of people living with this condition to stay active. However, many still experience pain, swelling, and lack of energy related to their RA and therefore have difficulty exercising.

Getting into a pool might help. Swimming can be a great way to move, but if you’re not a swimmer, there are other ways to move in water. Water walking, water aerobics, hot tub stretching, and other forms of aquatic exercise can reduce pain in your joints and help you strengthen your muscles.

The Benefits of Swimming With RA: My Story

From my perspective, swimming and water aerobics are a great option. They feel good, my joints don’t swell afterward and I can do it even when I’m having a flare. I get a bit sore, but usually recover within a day—much more quickly than I do with harder land-based exercises 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 builds muscle and really helps me stretch.

Why Water Exercise?

It’s easier to move in water than on land. That’s because your body is buoyant in water—the water supports your weight and reduces stress on your joints. That makes it a safer and often better place to exercise for people who are experiencing significant RA symptoms. If you can find a pool with warm water, it has the added benefit of soothing your pain, therefore making it easier to exercise.

Because water supports your joints, it allows you to move more freely. After you exercise, using a spa or hot tub can give you a post-workout massage from the bubble jets. This can help your body relax.

Water has 12 times more resistance than air, so movement in water helps tone and strengthen muscles and can help improve balance and coordination. There is some disagreement about whether water exercise and water walking constitutes a weight-bearing exercise. Bearing weight is an important part of building bone density, which will protect you from osteoporosis. It may be possible to do water exercises that can be weight-bearing, but if you can’t, moving in water is still better than not moving at all.

For people with arthritis, the Aquatic Exercise Association (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-minute sessions as tolerated, and working toward a routine of three to five days per week. Changing activities and body positions frequently can help 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 or rec center. Our try your local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation to find water exercise programs in your area or check the AEA website to find an Arthritis Foundation class.

For people whose physicians recommend regular water exercise, the Arthritis Foundation suggests they consider installing a pool or hot tub at their home. Pools and hot tubs can sometimes be deducted from your taxes as a medical expense, but an accountant or tax advisor should be consulted.

Updated by: Lene Andersen

Christine Miller
Meet Our Writer
Christine Miller

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.