The benefits of swimming in retirement

Swimming is one of the most popular methods to keep fit in the UK. Research reveals that 4 million people in the UK go swimming at least twice a week and, each year, there are over 750,000 internet searches for ‘swimming pool near me’ but why is swimming particularly good for the over 55s?

Written by

Sheila Frampton

Why is swimming good exercise for older people? 

Swimming is one of the best sports for older people, especially those with mobility problems. It is a no-impact sport so it’s gentle on the joints and, when swimming, you’re exercising all your muscles so it’s a whole-body workout with just one sport.

Why should I swim in retirement?

Strengthening your muscles is extremely important as you age because, you lose about 10% of your muscle mass for each decade after the age of 30, partly due to the natural ageing process but more because as you get older, you tend to become less active.

People swimming in lanes
A lady going swimming at the seaside

What are the physical benefits of swimming for the older adult?

  • Swimming is excellent for the heart, making you less susceptible to heart disease. You won’t feel out of breath so quickly and you’ll feel more energised and ready to cope with everyday tasks.
  • Swimming helps you maintain a healthy weight – which means less strain on your heart.
  • The water supports your body easing the strain on your joints so you’re able to exercise even if you struggle with mobility – for example, if you’re suffering from arthritis.
  • Swimming reduces the risk of falling. As we age, we need to consider fitness activities that nurture and support bone strength. Whilst swimming, as a no-impact sport, is not as load-bearing as dance fitness or aerobics by increasing muscle strength it is maintaining the forces outside the bone which are important in helping strengthen bones – and this strength is important in terms of posture and stability. A study in Australia researched the relationship between swimming and falling as an older adult. The study revealed that male swimmers aged 70 or older were 33% less likely to fall compared to non-swimmers.
  • Swimming can help improve the quality of sleep. Swimming helps to physically tire the body which paves the wave for a more natural exhaustion helping improve your sleep. This is important because nearly 50% of older adults report difficulty sleeping which can be harmful to mental health.
  • Swimming is relatively inexpensive. All you need is a costume, a towel and the entry fee for the pool. Of course, you can join a swim club or lessons which cost more – or you could go ‘wild swimming’ which really is inexpensive.

What are the mental benefits of swimming?

Swimming is a very social sport, whether you swim with family and friends, join a class or just become a regular at the local pool – increasing your social contact will lift your spirits, improve your mood and your mental health.

Increasing your physical wellbeing has a positive effect on your mental wellbeing relaxing the body and mind, reducing depression, anxiety and stress – all common issues that become more prevalent with age.


I get bored with lane swimming – what else can I do?

If you don’t want to swim up and down the pool, think about:

  • Getting fit and keeping active with aqua aerobics.
  • Playing water polo.
  • Getting close to nature by wild swimming.
Two people sitting in a pool together

What are Aqua Aerobics or Water Aerobics?

Aqua aerobics brings all the benefits of swimming with the added fun of being part of a class with exercise to music.

In an aqua aerobics class you may do some water walking, aqua jogging, stretches, arm curls, calf raises, side leg lifts and exercises using buoyancy aids such as foam floats.

Water provides natural resistance, helping build lean muscle mass and cardio-aerobics. If joint pain or arthritis prevents you from taking place in studio classes, then aqua aerobics could help you build and maintain your fitness levels. The warm water will help release tension and loosen joints and the exercise will release positive endorphins that counteract stress hormones. With aqua aerobics you’ll improve your co-ordination and develop new friendships.

With aqua aerobics you don’t need to be a good swimmer. The classes are done in time to music and are designed to tone the whole body.

Where do I find aqua aerobics classes?

If you visit the Better website, you’ll find a class finder for aerobics as well as a pool finder.


Try playing Water Polo in retirement

What is water polo?

Water polo is a game played in the pool, with goals at each end. The winner is the team that scores the most goals by getting the ball between the posts. Players are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool and have to tread water the whole time, using a special technique – so you have to be confident treading water.

Players move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming while pushing the ball in front of them. They can only hold the ball with one hand, other than the goalkeeper who uses both hands.

In senior teams, there are 13 players – each team has 7 in the water at once - six outfield players and one goalkeeper. The match is divided into four quarters, time depending on the age of the participants.

Am I too old to play water polo?

You’re never too old to start playing water polo. Masters water polo is for the over 30s and teams in the 50+ age group play six-minute rather than seven-minute quarters.  You do need to be a confident swimmer though and have a considerable amount of stamina  - making it perfect for mature people who have maintained their fitness and want to stay fit.

Where can I find more information about water polo?

There are water polo clubs all around the country. Take a look at the swimming organisation’s website for more details and information on clubs.

People playing water polo
A man swimming in a lake
Someone throwing a water polo ball

What is wild swimming?

Wild swimming is simply swimming or taking a dip in any natural waterway. It is a sport that began in Ancient Egypt and became popular in Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign. Wild swimming can take place in lakes, rivers or the sea and during the Covid pandemic, when swimming pools were closed, it experienced a massive rise in popularity. It can be done in any weather, any season and can involve long swims or short dips. You can swim without any special equipment but if you swim in cold conditions, you might want a wet suit.


What are the benefits of wild swimming?

  • The cold improves circulation. When the body detects a drop in temperature, it directs blood away from the skin’s surface to the organs to conserve heat and thus is great for getting the blood pumping.
  • Wild swimming is a distraction from life’s stresses and worries. Whilst you’re in the water, you’re focusing on your technique and the natural surroundings. Research has revealed that cold water immersion can boost levels of dopamine – the happy hormone – by more than 500% and wild swimmers frequently experience a ‘post swim high.’
  • Wild swimming groups have been growing in numbers for several years – it’s safer than swimming alone and strong friendships form when people meet for a weekly or daily swim.
  • Wild swimming gives you a chance to reconnect with nature – and really feel part of the natural environment.


Judith at one of her favourite wild swimming spots.

What do retired wild swimmers say?

Judith, who is in her 60s and lives in Amble, Northumberland, is a keen wild swimmer as she explains:

“Three years ago, a friend posted on Facebook that she regularly swam in the North Sea near my home. She was so enthusiastic! One day, walking on the beach, I saw her in the water and she was beaming – and I thought ‘I want to try that.’

“Now, three years later, I regularly swim in the sea and in rivers or lakes all year round. I started off with quick dips but now I swim too – although not long distances. The experience always starts with excitement, occasionally tinged with nervousness. When I feel a bit down, I still go, thinking of the benefits. The water is cold but by staying relaxed, keeping moving and breathing slowly, I warm up swiftly and feel such a sense of peace, joy and pride in myself.”

“I feel very aware of nature surrounding me. It’s so great to feel the sun on your face but also lovely to see raindrops splashing on the water at eye-level. I see sea birds on the water, geese flying above and waves splashing over the pier.”

“I am usually in the water for about 15 to 20 minutes and when I come out, I feel relaxed, exhilarated, tingly and really happy – such a sense of achievement. This feeling lasts all day and fills me with energy. It’s a perfect start to the day or great as a mood lifter at any other time.”

“I mostly swim in a beautiful, sheltered bay with a group of friends I have met through swimming. We enjoy a hot chocolate and chat afterwards. I occasionally swim alone when I know the place is safe and there are people close by. The effects on my health are the extra energy, the calming of my mind, the feeling as well being and, of course, the normal benefits of swimming.”

Where can I find a wild swimming group?

The Outdoor Swimming Society has a list of groups but there may be more groups and events in your local area. Take a look at their website here.

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