Although scuba is technically a sport, for most of us, diving is more about calm than cardio.
One of scuba’s biggest attractions is the relaxation it offers, as well as the chance to escape from the frenetic pace of life on land. Most dives require very little physical work once underwater, and so it’s hard to think of scuba as part of a fitness regime. But a day of diving always leads to a good night’s sleep and a disproportionately large appetite, so perhaps we’re expending more energy underwater than we realize. Although diving requires a relatively low level of physical activity, other factors combine to make it effective exercise, which is good news for those of us who would rather spend our time beneath the waves than in the gym.
The conditions of the underwater environment are a considerable factor in scuba’s value as a fitness tool. Although you may not feel as though you’re exercising while diving, the water around you is conducting heat from your body 20 times faster than air, so you must work hard to maintain its core temperature. Even in tropical climates, metabolic activity increases significantly in order to combat heat loss; in cooler parts of the world, the body must expend even more energy to counteract frigid temperatures at depth. Some dives require more physical activity than others — anyone who’s ever had to contend with strong current knows just how tiring swimming against the flow can be. Similarly, keeping up with marine life, attempting to stay in one place for photography purposes, or any kind of underwater activity that involves hard finning results in additional calorie expenditure.
The technique used to fin properly, i.e. from the hip rather than from the knee, is key to strengthening core muscles as well as glute and back muscles, according to PADI’s director of communications Theresa Kaplan. She attributes diving’s toning and strengthening properties to the fact that water is a medium “hundreds of times more dense than air.” Water resistance is instrumental in defining scuba as a valuable form of low-impact exercise. Diving’s low impact also makes it a good alternative to conventional exercise for those with weak or injured joints, as it puts considerably less strain on the body than most land-based physical activities. Diving is therefore not only a good workout for healthy individuals, but also a great form of physical therapy for those recovering from injury. Some scientists even believe that scuba may decrease the time it takes for wounds to heal, thanks to the body’s consumption of concentrated levels of oxygen at depth.
Diving can also aid long-term fitness, as breathing techniques used to improve air consumption teach the body to absorb more oxygen for every inhale. Normally, the body uses only a quarter of the oxygen it inhales, but diving can increase lung efficiency over time. And the dive itself isn’t the only part of the sport that offers a workout. The routine of kitting up, carrying gear to the point of entry, getting in and out of the water and de-kitting also contributes to scuba’s overall fitness value. A dive cylinder weighs between 30 and 50 pounds; carrying a full scuba unit strengthens core muscles, particularly during shore entries. Lifting cylinders, weights and other equipment often involves actions comparable to weight-lifting exercises used in the gym. Diving is therefore not only a cardiovascular workout but a muscular one as well. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the physical demands of diving are significant enough to be treated with caution; those suffer from significant health conditions or obesity should seek medical advice before attempting to dive.
The benefits of scuba to general physical fitness were acknowledged by the 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities, which compared it in terms of metabolic activity with ice-skating, power-walking and casual soccer. On average, a man weighing 180 pounds can expect to burn as many as 600 calories during an hour dive, and many more if swimming in strong currents or particularly cold water. Several online calculators can work out the calories burned during a specific dive, based on weight and the time spent underwater.
Scuba is beneficial not only as a viable form of physical exercise, but also for mental and emotional wellbeing. The peace, serenity and beauty of the underwater world encourage positivity and give real joy to those who experience them. Diving is a great way to tone and strengthen your body, burn calories and boost your serotonin levels, ultimately making it both a rewarding and enjoyable way to keep fit.