Tips To Get You in the Swim When You Have RA

Patient Expert

I'm swimming through life with rheumatoid arthritis. Are you? If you're still thinking about it, let me try to address some of your concerns in the hopes of encouraging you to take advantage of this great form of exercise.

I'd like to swim, but I'm afraid of the water.

Consider that your desire to swim may be overwhelmed by the cascade of stress chemicals released when you think about going into the water. You may have had a frightening aquatic experience or you may have learned your fears from those around you. I've written more about this on Overcome Your Fear and Get in the Swim.

Sign up for lessons, either group, semi-private or private. Swimming instructors are qualified to help you overcome your fears, regardless of age.

I'm so sore and now you're asking me to swim?

Exercise will actually help you maintain, and even improve, your mobility as you strengthen your muscles and increase your range of motion. Exercise also generates those good-for-you endorphins. Swimming is a nonweight-bearing form of exercise, which makes it an ideal option for those with RA.

What should I do at the pool?

There are a number of the things to do, such as:

1. Learn to swim or improve upon your swimming abilities by taking classes.

2. Take an aqua-fit class. I just checked the listings at my pool and there's a creative list of choices: Aqua Joints, Aqua Strength and Conditioning, Gentle Fit, Forever Fit/Rusty Hinges, Move to Improve, plus several deep water options.

Pay attention to how you feel after your classes. You may have to switch to a gentler class if there's a lot of vigorous stepping/jumping. My feet can't take that pounding, even when I've worn cushy water shoes.

3. Swim laps.

4. Ask your healthcare team for some suggestions.

5. Design your own exercise program.

6. Join a Master's Swim Club.

7. Set some goals:

  • Swim X times per week
  • Work toward a certain distance
  • Improve your heart rate
  • Get in shape--lose weight/build muscle
  • Build your vacation around swimming—go omewhere tropical

What do I put in my swim bag?

Here are some of the items you'll find in my swim bag:

  • Bathing suit--I usually prefer the U-back style because it is easier to put on and take off
  • Goggles
  • Swim cap
  • Ear plugs--not to keep water out of my ears, but to lessen the irritation from a way-too-loud sound system (See Hearing Loss and Stress)
  • Deck shoes
  • Towel--old and well-worn because it's lighter and in case someone takes it or I lose it, it doesn't matter
  • Small bag with toiletries--I prefer to use a mesh bag because it dries quickly
  • Eyeglass case
  • Hand paddles that will increase resistance as you do your water exercises or swim laps
  • Snorkel--if you like to swim front crawl and have neck issues, a snorkel eliminates the need to turn your head to breathe

All that? But my bag will be so heavy!

This week, I saw someone use a shopping cart like this. The only drawback is that it doesn't fit into the smaller lockers that are at some pools. Instead, I prefer to use a wheeled backpack.

Brrr! My pool is so cold.Some facilities keep their pools at a cooler temperature. Initially, you may find it hard to get in. (I like to just go for it--jump in or at the very least, get wet quickly, then get moving!) If you're working hard enough, you'll soon warm up.

Change your perception:

  • For those who don’t like to sweat, you don’t have to worry about it in the cool water.
  • If you’re having hot flashes, the pool will be a welcome respite for you!
  • Think of the water as a soothing liquid salve cooling off your joints.

For those of you who are cold-intolerant, you may wish to find a pool with warmer water. Barring that, some facilities have hot tubs, where you may be able to do your range-of-motion (ROM) and strengthening exercises.

What about swimming in the lake, sea or ocean?

Wherever you swim, remember to be safe.

  • Always swim with a buddy.
  • Swim parallel to the shore.
  • Check to see what sort of rescue equipment is available.
  • Alcohol and swimming don’t mix.
  • Be sun-wise.
  • The Red Cross and Lifesaving Society are good sources of water safety tips.

Do you have any suggestions for making pools more RA-friendly?

Your community may hold public meetings prior to building a new facility. This is a great opportunity to attend and voice the needs of those with RA. The facility I swim at has an idea box - needless to say, I've left many comments. (Some of my ideas were even implemented!)

Some suggestions to consider:

  • Ramp: The pool I swim at has one and what a wonderful thing it is! It's used by young and old, ambulatory or not. It ensures independence without sacrificing the use of the pool for competitions.
  • Higher benches in the change room
  • Noise levels: Pools can be noisy places without music. Mix in the music coming from a sound system and the decibel readings may be well over the recommended safe levels. There's a great app called Decibel 10th, if you want to do your own investigation.
  • Safety/grab bars: Perhaps the shower area can do with a few more?

Is there anything else I need to know?

Yes. Have fun while being safe! Surrender to the joy and freedom that you get from being in the water.

Marianna Paulson is known as Auntie Stress. On her website, you can read her two blogs, Auntie Stress Cafe and the award-winning, A Rheumful of Tips. She also publishes a mostly monthly newsletter called The Connective Issue. Sign up here to receive information, tips,