When Amy Van Dyken was six years old, her doctor recommended swimming to manage her asthma better. Van Dyken began to enjoy swimming, and she was so good at it that she soon turned professional. She went on to win six Olympic gold medals for the USA.
Did swimming really help her overcome asthma? Can swimming help improve our lung function? The answer is mixed, but anecdotal evidence and the importance of regular exercise to support lung function suggest it’s worth a try. It’s also a lot kinder on the joints than going for a run.
Before starting a new exercise regime, it’s important to check in with your doctor. If and when you are ready for a swim, here are some of the ways in which a daily dip can support lung health:
1. Increased lung capacity
As with any physical activity, the demand for oxygen increases as swimming forces our lungs to breathe quicker and harder. Over a period of time, consistently meeting this high demand during swimming can help increase lung capacity and improve oxygen efficiency in the body.
2. Breath control and endurance
Unlike in running or cycling, in swimming, one cannot open mouth and inhale air as and when needed. The breaths have to be timed with the swimming strokes. Usually, swimmers breathe in when their head is outside water, and there is a tiny window of opportunity to take in a quick breath of air. This limitation forces our lungs to hold breath for a long time, supporting increased breath control and endurance.
3. Stronger respiratory muscles
Regular swimming helps build a strong core and spine, and it also improves the posture and strengthens the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles. With age, as lung capacity starts decreasing, problems of breathlessness might increase with people suffering from lung conditions such as COPD. Recent research suggests pool-based exercise can strengthen respiratory muscles and help with the management and rehabilitation of the disease.
4. Improved posture and spine
Swimming helps in correcting our posture and improving the overall spine health. The benefits of better posture aren’t limited to back pain. Bad posture has been known to restrict the body’s ability to breathe correctly. A correct sitting and standing posture will help us breathe more air into our lungs.
5. What about asthma?
Swimming is often recommended as a therapeutic exercise for people with asthma, based on the theory that breathing in warm moist air can help open up the airways and is less likely than other forms of exercise to trigger symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath. It is widely believed that swimming at an indoor pool is a better option than running outside, especially in winter, when you will be exposed to dry cold air and are more likely to exacerbate asthma symptoms.
A review of the available evidence suggests that swimming induces less severe bronchoconstriction (contraction of the airway that restricts airflow) than other sports. More research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind this, however, as well as the potential for airway irritation related to chlorine in the pool.