Is it safe to swim with a heart condition?

I used to swim regularly but have just been diagnosed with angina. What do I need to consider if I return to it?


BHF specialist Lisa Purcell says:

It’s great you’re keen to continue swimming. Before you do, though, it is important to discuss it with your doctor. If they say it’s OK to go back to swimming, you need to make sure you have your GTN spray nearby. When returning to swimming after a diagnosis of a heart condition it’s really important that you seek individual advice, as each person and their condition is different.

Swimming helps to keep your joints supple and your muscles strong, as well as helping you to lose weight.

Swimming helps to keep your joints supple and your muscles strong, as well as helping you to lose weight

However, there are effects on the body of being in water that everyone experiences, but which can have a greater effect on people with angina and heart conditions.

Your heart has to work much harder in the water compared with when you are out of it because changes to your circulation mean more blood is returning to your heart. When you start exercising, your heart has to work even harder due to the resistance of the water. The deeper you are, the greater the effects.

Due to the buoyancy and temperature in water it is very easy to underestimate how hard your body is working, so you should exercise at a lower intensity than you would do out of the water.

You should only swim in water with a temperature between 26–33C (79–91F) as this will have the least effect on your heart. Most public swimming pools are regulated at 29C, which is 84F. Pools that are hotter than 33C may cause your blood pressure to drop, making you lightheaded or faint. Being in colder water may provoke irregular heart rhythms.

If you have a heart condition, only swim when you are feeling generally well and allow at least one hour after a meal to pass before you get in the pool.

Enter and exit at the shallow end and get used to the temperature and depth. It’s important you warm up and cool down, so start and finish your swim at a slower pace and build up and down gradually.

The best swimming stroke is the one most familiar to you. You shouldn’t hold your breath when exercising, so avoid swimming under water or with your face in the water for too long as this can cause an increased strain on your heart.

You should always stop swimming if you experience chest pain, palpitation, light-headedness or don’t feel well. If the symptoms don’t go away with rest or after using your GTN spray, seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Lisa Purcell Meet the expert

Lisa Purcell is a physical activity specialist with more than eight years’ experience working with the BHF. Lisa produces resources and manages a range of health projects, including physical activity in the workplace.

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