Film-and-swim star Ester Williams earned three national championships in breaststroke and freestyle by the time she was 16, just before the beginning of World War II. That launched her film career and made her a favorite pin-up girl for GIs, but swimming always remained her passion. She once said, “No matter what I was doing, the best I felt all day was when I was swimming.”
Now science shows why she and millions of avid swimmers feel that way: Aquatic resistance training does more than improve cardiovascular function. It actually improves cartilage health, which is something that was previously thought impossible.
Cartilage deterioration is the hallmark of osteoarthritis (OA), a condition that affects 27 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. It causes bones to rub together, leading to stiffness and pain. Increasing age, obesity, joint injuries and weak thigh muscles all can increase the risk of OA.
The accepted thinking is that your joint cartilage can be well-maintained, but not improved. A recent study carried out by the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, however, may change all that. Researchers looked at 87 post-menopausal women, age 60 to 68, with mild osteoarthritis of the knee. Some of them did one hour of intensive aquatic lower limb resistance exercises – 400 to 500 reps – three times a week for four months. The results from their MRIs showed that a high number of repetitions of low-impact aquatic resistance exercises actually improved their knee cartilage’s biochemical composition.
You’ll have to wait to see if these results can be duplicated in another study, say at the Los Angeles Athletic Club where Esther Williams swam. In the meantime, the right kind of exercise is key to preventing OA, and swimming is the perfect water workout:
- Swimming burns calories and builds stamina
- The breaststroke is great for chest and shoulder muscles
- Freestyle and backstroke target many muscles in the back
- The butterfly does engages your core muscles
- Since swimming is done in a warm, humid setting, it can be a good choice for people with asthma
So if you’re at risk for OA – or you just need a great workout – consider swimming as well as taking a walk, practicing Tai Chi or stretching to maintain flexibility in your joints.