Swimming and Parkinson's

Swimming is a great way of staying fit and healthy, whatever your age or ability. It's fun and can give you an all-round body workout. Here, physiotherapist Bhanu Ramaswamy tells us more about swimming for people with Parkinson's.

Physiotherapist Bhanu Ramaswamy smiling
By Bhanu Ramaswamy
Parkinson's Specialist Physiotherapist

Swimming is an excellent way of increasing your stamina – especially if you experience painful joints or weak bones. This is because the buoyancy of the water takes some of the weight of your body. It can also build your confidence to put weight on your joints, and get your heart and lungs working harder. 

Thinking about your posture 

If you find your Parkinson’s causes you to stoop forward when you are standing, you may find your body tips forward when you are swimming on your front. On your back, the opposite happens so your body won’t float well. 

You can overcome this problem by warming up your muscles properly and by stretching up as tall as you can before you get in the water. 

Sometimes, you may feel your body becoming tight again, even if you have stretched before starting your swim. If this happens, you might find it easier to use a swimming aid. A physiotherapist can advise you on using different swimming aids and where you can buy them from. If you decide to try any of these aids out, you should ask someone to supervise you in the pool the first time you use one, in case you get into difficulty.

Moving easily in the water

Parkinson’s often affects one side of your body more than another. If you experience stiffness, it may become more difficult to use your arms when you swim, making your neck and back muscles stiff. 

Thinking about moving easily in the water and thinking about the actions you are making can make a swim easier for a while. Remember though, if you have difficulty concentrating and moving at the same time, this may not be a good solution for you.

Things to consider before making a splash

Getting started

There’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy swimming if you have Parkinson’s. But if you have any questions about whether it’s the right type of exercise for you, speak to your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse. A physiotherapist can also offer advice.

What’s happening at your local pool?

Depending on your ability or how confident you are in the water, you may prefer to join an organised class or participate in a free swim session. Your local pool will be able to tell you about the different activities they offer. These may include: 

Disability swimming classes

These classes are specifically run for people with a range of disabilities. During these classes, the temperature of the pool may be warmer than at other times to make it more comfortable for people with limited mobility. There may be staff available to help you into and out of the pool. 

Water aerobic classes

This is where you perform exercises in the pool to music. Your local pool may also run aqua jogging or aqua Zumba classes (Zumba is a dance class set to South American music). It is a fun way to exercise in a group and you don’t have to swim, as the water will only ever be waist high. 

Safety tips for getting back in the water

  • Don’t just dive in. Take it slowly and test your ability, especially if you haven’t been swimming for a while.
  • Take care when you get into and out of the water. Use the stairs with a safety rail to ease you into the water. Some pools may have a ramp with a handrail where you can safely enter or exit the pool. If you’re not sure how best to get into the water, ask a lifeguard or pool attendant for advice.
  • Lots of pools should also be able to provide a pool-side chair lift or hoist which can safely lift you into and out of the water, if you need it.
  • The law says that access routes to the pool must be wheelchair-friendly and that you have access to the water. Sometimes, you may not be able to take your wheelchair to the poolside for hygiene reasons. If that is the case, the pool must provide alternative arrangements. You should speak to your local pool if this may affect you. 
  • Make the lifeguards aware you have Parkinson’s. They will be more alert to any potential problems and you will feel reassured and more confident in the water.
  • Take a friend – someone who knows about your condition and can be there if you get into any difficulties.   
  • Don’t get out of your depth in the water if you don’t feel confident. If in doubt, stay close to the side of the pool, so you can stop swimming if you need to.