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Intervening upstream: How swimming could help save the NHS

Swim England

4 min read Partner content

Chair of the newly created Health Commission for Swimming, Ian Cumming, explains how more lengths in the pool can reduce diseases from diabetes to dementia, and potentially save the NHS billions each year.

The arduous task of finding efficiencies in the National Health Service is constantly undermined by the rising costs associated with unhealthy lifestyles.

Type-2 diabetes alone costs the NHS around £10bn each year - roughly equivalent to the entire police budget - and a figure that is expected to rise exponentially. It would seem policymakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Yet as is so often the case, the simplest solution can also be the most effective. In this insistence, the answer could simply be: ‘swimming.’

A growing body of research shows that regular swimming can guard against a whole range of conditions from heart disease to diabetes, with the potential to save the NHS billions each year.

The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) has set up a new and independent Health Commission for Swimming to  explore current research and promote evidence on how swimming positively impacts on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, to ultimately get more of us in the pool, and out of the ward.

“In the health service  we do not just focus on treating people when they’re ill, but how we can prevent people from becoming ill in the first place,” said Ian Cumming, chief executive of Health Education England and newly appointed chair of the Health Commission for Swimming.

“We know that just 30 minutes of swimming a week can guard against heart disease, strokes and type-2 diabetes,” he added. “It’s also a very good way to help people lose weight, and it’s a very effective way to exercise without being exposed to all the stresses and strains of, for example, running  because you’re supported whilst you’re in the water.”

Gentle swimming burns more than twice as many calories as walking, while supporting 90 percent of body weight, making it the perfect way for people with impairments, injuries or illnesses to stay active. It’s also proven to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis, by retaining normal muscle strength and joint structure.

“What is even less well known,” Cumming went on, “are some of the benefits that swimming has around mental health: it can help reduce depression, it can help with anxiety, and it can help improve stress management and individuals’ mood states.

“There’s also research coming out which shows that regular swimming can help prevent the pace of progression of dementia.”

Researchers now tells us that swimming improves blood flow around the brain, stimulating different areas, which slows down the speed at which brain cells are lost.

The commission’s board is comprised of representatives from Public Health England, local authorities, swimming pool operators and academics. While essentially independent, its work and goals are parallel to those of the health service.

“It’s not specifically a response to the Government’s Sports Strategy,” said Cumming. “But the various headings within the strategy - such as social cohesion, mental and physical health - align closely with the benefits of swimming.”

It also chimes with the NHS Five-Year Forward View, published last year. One of its three components is how to address the ‘health gap’ between NHS resources and the demands of the population.

“We can’t do that whilst continuing to see a growth in disease as a result of lifestyle,” said Cumming. “Swimming is directly connected to improving the health of the population and reducing the financial burden on the NHS.”

“If you look at diabetes for example, the inexorable rise in diabetes in society is associated with lack of exercise and diet. Swimming is a very good way of moving into that agenda as it allows people to start with a relatively gentle form of exercise.”

The other component of the commission’s work is to promote the inherent benefits of swimming through the various channels represented on its board; to get those who already swim, to swim more, and those who don’t, to take it up.

“One of the most powerful ways to get people to participate in exercise more generally is through health promotion advice at their GP, or other health professionals in hospital or in the community, as well as through local authorities and pool operators,” he added.

Part of the challenge is in changing embedded behaviours, says Cumming, especially for adults. Not only is it harder to teach adults new skills, but those who have never learned to swim have often developed a fear of water.

“Persuading adults to go down to their local swimming pool and sign up for lessons is a lot harder than getting a parent to take their six-year-old,” he said. “So it’s important that people are aware it’s not just about competitive swimming, there are many options such as Aqua Fit, Aqua Relax or fun sessions, to build confidence in the pool, and which put people in touch in with others in a similar situation.”

The Health Commission for Swimming group will be publishing the extent of its findings in a report by the end of the year.