Today I am excited to launch a new series on my blog all about the therapeutic benefits of recreational activities! First up: SWIMMING. And here to discuss the therapeutic benefits of swimming is physical therapist, blogger, and owner of Starfish Therapies, Stacy Menz.
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Swimming is one of the recreational activities that I personally would not want to live without. I have been a swimmer my whole life, and I grew up by the ocean. I swam competitively from the age of 7 and I still swim regularly. In fact, many people talk about getting into the zone with running, or the benefits of meditation; well for me swimming encompasses all that. Based on that, I quickly jumped on the idea of writing about its therapeutic benefits.
The brilliance of swimming or aquatic therapy is that you are able to benefit from the inherent properties of water such as buoyancy, resistance, and hydrostatic pressure to work on things such as strengthening, balance, and even functional skills, while providing a unique environment that kids (and adults) can have fun in.1
From my professional perspective, some of the therapeutic benefits I have seen for swimming are:
- Decreased impact on joints – Because of the buoyant properties of water, it is able to absorb some of our body weight. People of all ages get exercise via swimming, treading water, or walking in the water without putting excessive stress on their joints.
- Increased cardiovascular endurance – Swimming laps is a great way to get cardiovascular activity in. In addition, practicing walking in the pool is also an excellent cardiovascular exercise.
- Whole body sensory input – The water touches all areas of the body when you are submerged in it. This can help with body awareness because as a person moves their arms, legs, or whole body through the water, they are getting immediate feedback from the water moving around them. This will enhance their awareness of their movement and their body overall.
- Use of the buoyancy and resistance from the water to facilitate and enhance exercises – The natural properties of the water can allow you to use its buoyancy to help facilitate movement. It can make your body seem lighter and give you a lift if you are trying to figure out how to move in a certain pattern. If you are working on strengthening, the resistance of the water provides a natural ‘weight’ for you to lift.
- Use of the whole body – Swimming involves the whole body. For swimming laps it is easy to see this, however, by nature of being submerged in water for other activities such as walking or playing, you are naturally engaging your entire body.
- Improved motor planning and coordination – To swim laps and learn new strokes, it requires the coordinated effort of the arms, the legs, the trunk, and the head and neck. Each part of the body is doing its own thing, and when put together magic happens, and you can move through the water.
- Muscle tone regulation – By altering the temperature of the water, you can help to relax muscles that have a higher resting tone. This can help with stretching and ease of movement.
My personal belief is that swimming is great for everyone! It is a great skill for all kids to learn, as it allows them to expand their opportunities for play and activity.
For kids that have lower muscle tone, or generalized weakness, it is a great activity for whole body strengthening. For kids with higher tone, it is great for working on range of motion. For kids that have challenges with coordination and learning new movements, this is a great way to increase their skill level and have practice with coordinated movement while getting to play in the water, and usually in a group situation so they have the opportunity to engage with peers.
What’s also great is that there is equipment out there that allows kids who aren’t able to move independently on land, to be able to float on their own in the pool. This enhances the feeling of independence.
I attempted to find what information is out there to support my professional opinion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discusses the many benefits of swimming, but in relation to older adults (although many of these benefits could be applied to children). A few were:
- Swimming can decrease the risk of chronic illness
- It is easier to exercise longer in the water
- Swimming improves mental health
- Swimming can improve family connections because all family members can participate together2
I found an article from Johnston UNC Health Care talking about the benefits of swimming specifically for youth and their list is:
- Can be either an individual or a team sport
- Something that children can continue to do for the rest of their lives
- Very few injuries sustained from swimming when compared to other youth sports
- Provides a fun and challenging way to help children stay fit
- Teaches important safety skills to prevent drowning, which is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death among youth
- Provides cardiovascular activity that promotes heart and lung health
- Improves stamina, flexibility, strength, balance and posture
- Helps prevent childhood obesity, which is an increasing health problem, and that in turn can help prevent juvenile diabetes
- It is a mental exercise that can help improve emotional health and well-being
- It is easier for children with disabilities or medical conditions that might prevent them from participating in other youth sports3
On the research front, there is some research and case reports looking at the benefits of aquatic therapy for various conditions such as cerebral palsy, developmental delay, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and prader willi syndrome. Each of these reports shows the benefits of aquatic therapy as an adjunct to traditional therapy, as well as the need for more research in this area.4,5,6
While I know there is always room for more research, what I know from my own personal experience and from my professional experience and opinion is that getting kids into the water is not only beneficial, it’s fun for them and potentially the whole family!
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Stacy Menz is a board certified pediatric clinical specialist and the owner and founder of Starfish Therapies, a pediatric therapy company in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is actively involved in her professional association and is currently the managing editor of Impact, the publication of the APTA’s Private Practice Section.
Connect with Stacy!
- Kelly M, Darrah J. Aquatic exercise for children with cerebral palsy. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2005;47:838–842.
- Health benefits of water based exercise. Retrieved May 1, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/health_benefits_water_exercise.html
- 10 benefits of swimming for youth. Retrieved May 1, 2015 from http://johnstonhealth.org/2013/05/10-benefits-of-swimming-for-youth/
- Fragala-Pinkham, Maria A et al. An aquatic physical therapy program at a pediatric rehabilitation center: a case series. Pediatric Phys Ther. 2009;21:68–78.
- McManus, Beth M and Kotelchuck, Milton. The effect of aquatic therapy on functional mobility of infants and toddlers in early intervention. Pediatric Phys Ther. 2007;19:275–282
- Retarekar, Runzun et al. Effects of aquatic aerobic exercise for a child with cerebral palsy: a single subject design. Pediatric Phys Ther. 2009;21:336–344