Dec 20, 2021 The Health Benefits of Swimming

By: Breanna Salazar, PT, Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center

Summer may be over, and winter is just around the corner, but it is never too late to start swimming! As a former competitive swimmer myself, I am particularly inclined towards this sport, and as it turns out I have a few good reasons. Here are some health benefits to swimming.

Improved Heart Health

Heart disease is consistently the leading cause of death in the United States, and only becomes more prevalent as we age. In fact, according to the CDC, heart disease is the cause of nearly 1 in 4 deaths in the US. Americans most at risk for heart disease include people with high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, and physical inactivity.

The good news is that there are effective ways to manage your own risk factors for heart disease, and swimming is one of the best. A recent small study found that seniors that were previously sedentary, and added swimming “a few” days a week were able to lower their systolic blood pressure by an average of 9 points, which was deemed significant.

Swimming has also been shown to have positive effects for people living with Type II and Gestational diabetes. Studies show that combining aerobic and resistance training effectively increases insulin sensitivity, which means that it is easier for your body to use the insulin and manage blood glucose levels. These effects can last for 24-48 hours. Swimming is particularly effective because it combines both types of exercise into one activity! On the flip side, this means that people with Type I diabetes and hypoglycemia need to be more aware of their blood glucose levels before and after swimming.

Strengthened Immunity

Our immune system has had a spotlight shone on it in the past 2 years. Most people are looking for ways to strengthen their body’s natural defenses against pathogens and illness. If you guessed that swimming is beneficial, then you are correct! Specifically, swimming in cold water stresses your body in a way that stimulates production of blood and immune components such as white blood cells, platelets, and red blood cells. Studies also show that regular cold-water swimming can make these effects linger. That means a stronger defense is ready for when a pathogen makes its presence known.

Improved Lung Function

Breathing is important. Good breath control has been linked to reduced stress and anxiety levels, improved sleep, and improved lung function. Land activities such as running and walking allow your body to breathe whenever. However, swimming is unique in that it is one of the only activities that forces you to choose when and how to breathe. In fact, a 2015 study that compared elite swimmers to elite football players and people with a sedentary lifestyle showed that swimmers have a significantly higher lung volume and perform significantly better on pulmonary function tests compared with both groups.

A common complaint that I hear from people is “I can’t swim, I have asthma”. However, swimming is often recommended as a way to help manage symptoms. Breathing in warm and humid air, as is commonly found in pools, can help to keep airways open and lungs elastic. This can be especially helpful during the winter, when the air tends to be cold and dry.

Managing Chronic Illness

Something that is talked about a lot, but is greatly underappreciated, with regards to swimming and water exercise is that it is low impact yet maintains moderate to high resistance. The natural buoyancy of water decreases stress on joints and tissues that occurs with land-based exercise such as walking, running, and weight lifting. Water exercise is commonly studied in regards to management of chronic conditions. People living with MS have increased tolerance to exercise as the cooler water temperature helps manage heat-sensitivity fatigue symptoms, and they are at a lower risk of injury from falling when in the pool. Warm water exercise has been shown to be effective in increasing pain thresholds (thus decreasing pain) and improving functional ability for people with fibromyalgia.

Improved Mental Wellbeing

As with any form of regular exercise, swimming helps reduce feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety – all feelings that are too common these days. High levels of stress have significant negative effects on the body, including increased risk of heart disease, impaired immune system, and increased risk of developing chronic illness (sound familiar?). If you are looking for a way to relieve some of that stress that has been building, look towards the pool.

Don’t know how to swim? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There are many programs dedicated to teaching adults to swim. Don’t know where to start? That’s okay too! You can join a class or a swim group to help you get started. With all these wonderful health benefits, the only question left is: what’s stopping you?

Bonus Fact: Dogs are now being trained as lifeguards. They are even strong enough to pull three people linked together to safety!

Breanna Salazar PT, DPT

Doctor of Physical Therapy


Bree is a physical therapist at the Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center in Livingston. She treats patients with both orthopedic and neurological conditions, with a special interest in craniofacial pain and temporomandibular joint dysfunctions. Bree completed her BS in biology at Ramapo College of NJ in 2014, and received her doctorate in physical therapy at Rutgers University in 2016. She completed LSVT Big certification in 2020 and is actively working towards her CCTT from the Physical Therapy Board of Craniofacial and Cervical Therapeutics. When she is not in the clinic, she enjoys walking with her dogs, spending time with family, and knitting.

The Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center Rehabilitation centers are open and ready to help you achieve your goals. With four locations in West Orange, Millburn and Livingston, the experienced and compassionate staff at Cooperman Barnabas Rehabilitation offers adults and children the specialized care they need to resume an active life after surgery, injury or illness. They are committed to providing patients with the most advanced services in a safe, caring and soothing environment. For high-risk patients who are unable to visit in person, telehealth is an option. Patients do not need a prescription for physical therapy services.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call 973-322-7500.