Is Swimming Helpful in Preventing Bone Loss?
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Swimming is an excellent form of exercise to maintain upper body and core strength and to build the cardio-vascular system. It is especially useful for those who find weight-bearing exercise, such as walking or running difficult due to bone or joint issues, such as arthritis or gout. I was recently asked by a client if swimming is beneficial for preventing bone loss as we age. Realizing I haven't done much research on this subject, I dove into the literature.
What I found was quite interesting. Since being in water removes the gravitational loading on our bones, scientists have long suspected that swimming may not help bone density. This was borne out of studies that showed that young, elite swimmers that spend long hours in the pool have lower bone densities than average young adults. Even in older adults, bone density wasn't measurably higher in people who swim than in those who don't.
However, there was an important benefit to swimming. All the movement and muscle and joint loading of swimming produced higher bone turnover. What this means is that swimmers' bones are in better shape than non-swimmers, and are more resilient to fracture, even if they are not denser.
Another benefit of swimming on bones is indirect: by maintaining an exercise routine, muscles maintain their strength. The stronger the muscles tugging on the bones through their tendons, the stronger the bone has to be. Another indirect benefit is that the strength and endurance developed during swimming translates to other life situations, making going for walks, lifting weights etc. easier.
My recommendation is that if you're an older adult that primarily uses swimming as their form of exercise, please continue! However, I do highly recommend adding resistance training of some sort to your routine. Whether you use weights, bands, machines or just your body weight is less important than loading your bones in a safe and effective manner. If you're looking for a program to improve your bone density, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can work on a routine together. I have over 15 years of experience helping older adults exercise!