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by Elaine K Howley

January 6, 2021

If weight-bearing exercise is grinding your gears, consider swimming instead

It’s a common refrain on pool decks: “I used to run, but my knees [or hips or ankles] can’t take all that pounding anymore, so I took up swimming.”

That’s because swimming—and the near-weightless, killer full-body cardiovascular workout it provides—is a lot less jarring than weight-bearing activities such as running.

Think about it: Every time you take a step on land, your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and spine have to support your bodyweight. Compounding over thousands of steps in a single run, that can add up to an enormous amount of wear and tear on hard-working joints.

Although it’s true weight-bearing exercise is important for maintaining bone health as you age, non-weight-bearing exercise often makes a better claim for lifelong activity.

Osteoarthrosis is a degenerative joint disease that will impact every adult who lives long enough. Inside every joint is a cushion of cartilage that takes the weight of your movements day in and day out. Over time, that cartilage wears thin, and eventually the two bones that meet inside the joint begin rubbing against each other. This can cause significant inflammation plus pain, stiffness, and loss of range of motion in the joint.

Although there’s not much you can do to change this unfortunate effect of combatting the effects of gravity for a lifetime, swimming can ease some of that burden. If you have any type of joint condition or sensitivity, start swimming for the following reasons.

Low Impact

One of swimming’s primary claims to being good for joint health is the fact that water reduces the effects of gravity. This makes it a non-weight-bearing activity. In the water, you’re nearly weightless. For people with joint problems—as well as those with disabilities or loss of mobility or reduced range of motion in their joints—getting into the water can make movement far more comfortable.

As such, water exercises and swimming are often prescribed for people with arthritis and other joint problems. It’s also a common form of therapy for folks who’ve recently had surgery or are recovering from traumatic injuries that have impacted one or more joints.

Increased Range of Motion

Swimming encourages you to access a fuller range of motion in stiff or cranky joints and may help you gain a few more degrees or even full range of motion over time.

Your joints are likely to be much less stiff after a swim than when you entered the pool, especially if you swim in warm water. This is because warm water and physical activity can help increase blood flow throughout your body and that can help carry more nutrients and oxygen to those joints and lubricate them to move more fluidly.

Swimming and pool-based therapy have long been mainstays of physical rehabilitation after injury, surgery, or severe illness. In fact, polio, a rheumatic disease, and a president’s need for aquatic therapy is how the White House got its first pool.

In 1921, future president Franklin D. Roosevelt was infected with polio and lost much use of his legs. He—just like thousands of other polio survivors of the era—found that swimming was a means of not only regaining that lost physical ability but also a soothing and restorative practice that made moving damaged joints a little easier.

After being elected, FDR traveled every few days to exercise in a therapy pool in Baltimore, Maryland, until the published of The New York Daily News launched a campaign to build a pool on the grounds of the White House. Once the pool was built, FDR was able to do his hydrotherapy much closer to home.

Improved Circulation

Circulation plays a key role in joint health. You want to keep your blood moving along a vast highway of blood vessels that run to every nook and cranny of your body.

Swimming helps keep your blood moving along the 60,000-mile network of blood vessels known as your circulatory system. This helps support overall health, but it’s also especially important for joint health.

As you age, your joints can become stiff and sore. But a robust circulation system can help make your joints feel looser and more supple; improved circulation can help speed oxygen and nutrients to cells that need repair. The chronic inflammation that’s the hallmark of rheumatic disease such as osteoarthritis and other joint disease can be soothed with that influx of nutrients and oxygen, leading to less pain, swelling, and tenderness in the joint.

If you just can’t take another workout pounding the pavement or your hips or knees are crying for some help when coping with the ravages of weight-bearing exercise, consider giving swimming a second look as your first choice in a fitness routine.


  • Health and Nutrition