Water Exercise for Spinal Arthritis

As many people know, exercise can help prevent a number of degenerative diseases. It can elevate your mood and help you lose weight. With all these great perks, who wouldn’t want to maintain a regular exercise program?

But, for a person with degenerative spinal arthritis, pain when doing weight bearing activities may be all it takes for you to decide to skip your scheduled exercise activity.

Water therapy flotation equipment
BanksPhotos / E+ / Getty Images

Exercise for Spinal Arthritis

With spinal arthritis, finding an exercise program that doesn’t put pressure on your vertebrae may help you improve your day to day functioning, as well as decrease your pain levels. In turn, this may help slow the joint changes that lead to stiffness, immobility, more pain and possible disability. So what can you do to relieve or avoid compression on your spine, and make exercise meaningful to your condition-related and other health goals?

Working out in water is the exercise of choice, says Debbie Turczan, DPT, patient care coordinator for acute inpatient rehab at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “The buoyancy of the water cancels the effect of gravity and reduces compression in the spine as you move.” Turczan says your joints can benefit from the buoyancy offered by the water once you are immersed up to your chest level.

Swimming or Aquatic Exercise 

Once you’re in the water, you can either swim or do strengthening, flexibility, and aerobic exercises. It’s your choice—either will do a body good.

Swimming is good for the spine because along with general aerobic, range of motion and strength conditioning, it brings a little bit of spinal rotation to the areas between the bones, Turczan says. This micro twisting action may help pump out the synovial fluid from the facet joints and reduce spinal stiffness. In other words, it decompresses the discs and intervertebral joints.

To illustrate this, Turczan makes the analogy of a sponge that is squeezed and then let go. Because it was squeezed, she says, the sponge—in this case, your joints and discs—can take in more water than before the squeezing occurred. The rotation gives a little traction that helps a small amount of fluid movement into and out of the discs, keeping them healthy.

“The bottom line is that the spinal twisting that occurs during swimming facilitates fluid movement, and fluid movement key for keeping your joints flexible and healthy,” Turczan believes. “This is why swimming is a great way to work on the mobility of your low back.”

Water Exercise Classes

Both water exercise and swimming develop aerobic capacity, muscle strength, and range of motion. But with a water exercise class, you’ll target specific areas such as abdominals, back, hip, knee, and more.

Most pools and gyms with pools offer basic aquatic exercise programs for a nominal fee. Also, the Arthritis Foundation has specially designed exercise programs for people with arthritis available in many communities around the U.S. Their water exercise program is called the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program.

Regardless of which type of water exercise you choose, most likely, you’ll be addressing spine stiffness. Spine stiffness is a hallmark symptom of spinal arthritis, and it often causes fluids to stagnate. This leads to more lack of motion, pain, bone spurs and changes in the bone. “It’s a perpetuating cycle,” Turczan comments. “The less you move, the more pain you’re in and the less you want to move. Movement is the first line of defense when preventing spinal arthritis and limiting its development in the early stages of the disease. It’s also a good strategy for decreasing the pain.”

Dynamic Exercise to Stabilize Your Core

Another way to improve spine health, Turczan says, is with gentle core stabilization exercises. Note, this is not doing sit-ups. “Sit-ups are about the last thing you’d want to do if you have spinal arthritis,” she says. Core stabilization involves strengthening and training muscles of the trunk and hips to improve spine stability.

Turczan routinely gives her spinal arthritis patients exercises using fit balls and foam rollers. This type of work, called dynamic stabilization exercise helps you work not only your ab and back muscles but to also develop balance, flexibility, coordination and body awareness.

When doing dynamic stabilization exercises, Turczan says the goal is to keep the trunk still while moving arms and/or legs. Because the ball and foam roller may move underneath you, your abs have to work harder to keep your trunk upright and still. This can build trunk strength and hopefully improves spine health.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Telephone Interview. Debbie Turczan, MSPT, Clinical Specialist in Physical Therapy, New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York. September 2011.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.