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Swimming: A Spine Healthy Sport

Sitting too much? Consider swimming

Are you currently seated and reading this week’s blog post? How’s your body alignment? I bet you just adjusted your sitting posture. Chances are, this past year you have spent a lot more time in front of the screen than you could have imagined possible and your spine has definitely suffered. We sit way too much; the average Canadian sits at least 10 hours a day! And since the pandemic, we are spending more and more time in front of screens- TVs, smartphones, tablets and computers. While at work, school, zoom meetings, texting, video gaming, surfing the net or sharing on social media, chances are we are sitting.

As humans, we are supposed to move and aren’t meant for long periods of sitting or inactivity. Our modern sedentary lifestyles are resulting in changes to our bodies and affecting our musculoskeletal (MSK) system, which is integral to how the entire body functions. The mismatch between our physiology and current daily routines has caused back pain, neck pain and inflexibility to become all too common.

Great news! Summer is officially here; the province is beginning to re-open and activities are slowly becoming more available. Why not take a break from the Ottawa humidity and heat with a refreshing swim? Swimming is a great stress reliever and relaxing form of exercise. An hour or so at the pool after a hectic day at work will leave you feeling loose, refreshed and energized.

Good for the body

Swimming is a great cardiovascular exercise that keeps your heart rate up but without the impact and stress on your body’s joints like running has. Unlike other types of cardio that can be tough on the body, swimming not only burns calories and builds muscle, but it’s also refreshing! Swimming is one of the few sports providing a full body workout as it engages nearly all of your muscle groups. Couple that with low impact and high heart rate, and you have the perfect form of exercise on a hot summer day.

Swimming is an excellent form of low-impact aerobic conditioning that is easy on your back, spine and knees. The buoyancy of the water supports your body, reduces stress and compressive loads on your joints, as well as allowing for a greater range of motion and ease of movement. For many people with osteoarthritis, stenosis or other forms of joint or back pain, pool exercises and light swimming are usually part of the recommended therapy.

However, as with all forms of exercise, you need to be mindful of how you exercise. Some strokes in the pool can actually aggravate low back, and neck pain and dysfunction.

Avoid shear forces

Some swimming strokes and techniques can create shear force in your lower back due to repetitive rotating in your lumbar spine and hips. Shear force contributes to stress on the spinal discs and other pain-sensitive tissues in your low back. To avoid this kind of force, consider
using a mask and snorkel to eliminate arching your back while lifting your head up for a breath, or rotating your lumbar spine to turn your head to breathe. Work with a coach or athletic trainer to perfect your stroke.

Butterfly and breaststroke also force the lumbar spine to arch backward during the stroke. These movements stress the facet joints in the back of your spine and can lead to repetitive strain or aggravation of pain over time.

Your choice of technique while swimming can either help or potentially harm your back, so it’s important to stick to strokes that will protect your spine and prevent pain. In general, the safest strokes for individuals with back pain are freestyle and backstroke. But the truth is, there isn’t one best stroke for anyone with back pain. Swimming safely and staying pain-free will depend on a number of factors, including the underlying cause of back pain, swimming ability, mechanics, and exercise intensity.

Spine friendly strokes

Proper technique while swimming will be imperative in preventing injury and worsening of pain. Consider the following tips:

  • Keep your body level in the water and head straight rather than lifted for front strokes such as the crawl or breaststroke.
  • Use a snorkel to eliminate the need to arch or rotate your lumbar spine when lifting your head for breaths.
  • Wear goggles to reduce improper head movements when trying to keep water out of the eyes.
  • Use flotation devices (noodles, boards, life preservers) to maintain proper form when swimming or for assistance when necessary.
  • Keep your shoulders in line with your hips to minimize shear forces while swimming.

Aquatic therapy

If you love swimming but find it hard on your low back, you may want to consider starting with aquatic therapy. Aquatic therapy (also referred to as pool therapy or water therapy) is physical therapy that takes place in a pool or other aquatic environment and is usually under the supervision of a trained healthcare professional. Like any exercise program, a good aquatic therapy program will start out with gentle exercises and progressively get challenging over time.

Aquatic therapy can provide many of the same benefits as swimming and other forms of exercise. Being in the water puts less pressure on the spine compared to land-based exercise. You benefit from the gentle resistance of the water, as well as its buoyancy. The warmth of the water in aquatic therapy has also been shown to relax tight muscles, allowing for an additional range of motion during exercise. It may allow you to exercise for longer periods of time.

Whether you are swimming laps at a pool or trying aquatic therapy for the first time, the goal is to feel comfortable in the water. If you don’t feel like a strong swimmer, it might be a good idea to seek out some basic adult swimming lessons at your neighbourhood pool before embarking on a regular routine.

Before starting swimming or any new exercise program it is always a good idea to do your homework before you dive in. Speak with your chiropractor or physiotherapist for guidance and advice on what might be best for you.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing back pain and looking to stay active while beating the heat this summer, visit us at CURAVITA and speak with one of our chiropractors to find out how time in the pool can keep you cool and keep you moving.