Here's something that may surprise you: Exercising in water, even when you're in pain, can make movement more comfortable and more beneficial.
Given the popularity of traditional spas, medical spas and healing spas, it's no secret that immersing yourself in water can be comforting and soothing. It's a primordial pleasure: After all, you spent your first nine months bathed in amniotic fluid in the womb, and as an adult, 60 to 70 percent of your body is made up of water. So it makes perfect sense that being in water feels good.
Now, a study performed by researchers at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) shows swimming is as effective as walking to relieve pain and improve quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is about ten times more common in women than men, and it can be disabling. In addition to pain, people who suffer from the disease often also experience sleep disorders. Reduced levels of serotonin (a key neurotransmitter in mood regulation and pain sensitivity) are frequent, as well as alterations in the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as heart rate, blood vessel contraction, sweating, salivary flow and intestinal movements. Taken together, all these symptoms strongly affect the quality of fibromyalgia patients' lives.
The study involved 75 sedentary women aged between 18 and 60 years who had fibromyalgia. They were divided randomly into two groups: 39 practiced freestyle swimming and 36 undertook moderate open-air walking. Both groups underwent the training three times a week for 12 weeks. The 50-minute sessions were overseen by physical education professionals specializing in rheumatology. The volunteers were evaluated according to several parameters both before and after the 12-week training period.
Statistically significant improvements were found for both groups. In social interaction, for example, the average rose from 56 to 80 in the swimming group and from 52 to 72 in the walking group. In mental health, the swimming group improved from 55.7 to 68, and the walking group from 51.1 to 66.8. These scales all range from 0 to 100, with rising scores pointing to improving quality of life.
Because it affects approximately 5% of women, fibromyalgia is a significant public health issue, according to Natour. "But, not being fatal, it isn't very visible in government statistics," he noted.
Specialists now agree that treatment should be multimodal, combining chronic pain medication and antidepressants with physical exercise and control of concomitant disorders that may also cause pain, such as arthrosis.
Also, keep in mind that the pain-reducing effects [of water-based exercise] tend to be additive over time. It gets better, the more you do it.