The benefits of swimming add to your health in ways that other forms of exercise simply cannot. And swimming is no longer strictly a summer activity, there are even more benefits when you are able to swim year-round by enclosing your swimming pool.

Just how important are the benefits of swimming?

Let’s take a look at swimming as a treatment for one of the most difficult of all chronic health problems, a form of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis. Then we’ll take a look at the benefits of swimming for many more common health conditions.

Swimming as a treatment for ankylosing spondylitis. Ankylosing spondylitis is a condition of chronic inflammation of the spine. The inflammation caused by this disease can spread to joints all over the body and even cause bone problems where there are not any joints. This form of arthritis causes constant pain, and the stiffness it brings each and every morning can be a tremendous burden. Most people who have ankylosing spondylitis also become severely depressed.

There are no good pharmaceutical treatments for ankylosing spondylitis, even though modern treatments are better than those available just 10 years ago. For most people with the condition, the way to less pain, better posture, and greater flexibility is through exercise. But if you are in real pain from chronic deterioration of your joints, you need to be very selective about the exercise you do. There simply is not enough energy and enough pain medication to spend a lot of time in the gym.

Medical researchers and swimming

Medical researchers at the Department of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine at Ege University in Izmir, Turkey set out to find whether walking or swimming was the better exercise for people who have ankylosing spondylitis. The doctors recruited 45 volunteers who had the disease and who were aged 18 to 75. They excluded any volunteers who did not know how to swim, and they also excluded any volunteers receiving treatment with the new class of drugs called TNF-alpha blockers. This was to make sure the results of the experiment were due to exercise, not due to the medications.

Then the researchers divided the volunteers into three groups. One group did walking as their form of exercise. Another group did swimming as their form of exercise. A third group did both walking and swimming. The volunteers exercised for minutes a week, three times a week, for six weeks.

All the exercise sessions were 30 minutes long, with a warm-up, steady exercise period, and cool down. The walking was “power walking,” designed to cause the participants to get just slightly out of breath. The swimming routine was structured in a similar manner, and the researchers used a heated pool (water at a temperature of 32° C/ 90° F). One patient developed a heart problem and had to drop out of the exercise program.

The Turkish researchers discovered that at the very least, none of the exercisers got worse. The only group to get better, however, was the group of swimmers. The most remarkable change in the swimmers was that they were able to breathe better and expand their chests farther. This in turn enabled them to reach farther with their arms. This makes it easier to do things like tying shoes and picking up things off the floor—small victories from the benefits of swimming, but absolutely critical for living well.

You don’t have to have an arthritic condition like ankylosing spondylitis to enjoy the benefits of swimming. Many other health problems are eased by regular aquatic exercise. Here are just a few of the findings of recent scientific studies of both animals and people.

A British study found that mothers of young children who live within 2 km (1.2 miles) of a year-round swimming facility were much less likely to get fat. Lower levels of obesity were also observed in their children.

Swimming in pools with resistance currents (swimming in place against a jet of water) increases the benefits of low-carbohydrate diets.  Swimming helps swimmers respond better to stress by specific changes in protein synthesis in a part of the brain known as the dentate gyrus.