The Effect of Swimming on Bone Strength

Young woman swimming in pool
Because swimming isn't a weight-bearing exercise, it's not the best activity for strengthening bones, but it has other health benefits. (Image: Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Swimming is an excellent exercise for cardiovascular fitness and weight maintenance. It is also one of the best activities around for cooling off on hot summer days. However, swimming is not the best exercise for improving bone strength, according to personal trainer Alice Burron, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.

Loss of Bone Strength

Loss of bone strength often stems from osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become weak and vulnerable to fractures because of low bone density. It’s estimated that about half of women older than 50 years of age will break a bone because of osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. The NOF indicates that 10 million Americans already have osteoporosis and 34 million are at risk of developing the disease. The good news is that loss of bone strength from osteoporosis is largely preventable if you get enough exercise when you’re young, stay active and develop other healthy habits as you age, notes the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. But it has to be the right kind of exercise.

Swimming and Bone Strength

Swimming is not the best exercise for improving bone strength because it is not a weight-bearing activity. The AAOS describes weight bearing as any activity you do on your feet. Examples of weight-bearing exercises are brisk walking, jogging, stair-climbing and racquet sports. Swimming and bicycling are not weight-bearing exercises because your bones don’t support your weight during the activity. According to a University of New Mexico research article, some elite swimmers have been found to have lower bone density than non-exercisers, possibly because the buoyancy of swimming doesn’t place any weight on the bones. In order to produce bone density, an exercise must overload the bone, the article notes. The bones respond by building more cells and becoming stronger.

Swimming Benefits

Swimming has other benefits that can help prevent bone fractures. In addition to cardiovascular fitness that can improve health and extend life, swimming helps build and maintain muscles and improve coordination, flexibility and balance, says Burron, who is an exercise physiologist. Most fractures due to osteoporosis are due to falls, partly because many elderly people tend to have balance problems and weak muscles, Burron notes. Stronger muscles and better balance may prevent falls as you age. Swimming is also one of the best activities for joint health and is often recommended for people with arthritis who must avoid high-impact activities such as walking, jogging and jumping, Burron notes.

Recommendations

You don't have to give up swimming in order to strengthen your bones. Burron recommends supplementing swimming with weight-bearing activities. Try to speed-walk, run, climb stairs or play tennis or racquetball on the days you’re not in the pool. Do some weight-lifting too. Strength-training with free weights or weight machines will quickly build bone strength, Burron says. By combining swimming with weight-bearing activities, you’ll improve your overall health. If you already have osteoporosis, the National Institutes of Health’s osteoporosis research center advises asking your doctor which activities are safe for you. High impact activities could actually cause a bone fracture in someone who already has osteoporosis, according to the NIH.

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