Fitness and Scuba Diving

by David Miner

Scuba diving is generally not classified or thought of as an athletic sport. Athletic sports like running marathons, football, bike racing, swimming, etc. require large amounts of training and cross training on a weekly or daily basis. There are training programs, coaches, personal trainers, books, etc. for probably every athletic sport today. If you want to get into shape to run a marathon, there are an unlimited number of resources available to help you accomplish your goal. But what about scuba diving?

How fit do you need to be to scuba dive? Do you need to be fit at all? How do you know if you’re fit enough? Where do you go for information about physical fitness for scuba diving? These are hard questions to answer.  Basic scuba diving courses require you to swim a certain distance and tread water, so you have to be somewhat fit to scuba dive or at least to pass your training course. There is little information in scuba diving training manuals that instruct you about being fit for diving, what can happen if you’re not fit, how to get fit, and how to maintain a decent scuba diving fitness level. We all know that physical fitness is important to stay healthy and control body weight levels, but how important is it to stay fit for diving?

Diving is sometimes looked at as an extreme sport but it can also be viewed as a leisure sport. Extreme sports are the sports that come packed with danger, speed, adrenaline, risk, etc. Leisure sports are generally more relaxed events, such as a nature trail walk or easy round of golf. Scuba diving certainly has the potential to be dangerous and there is a certain amount of risk involved, and many get their adrenaline up on every dive, so diving can be classified as an extreme sport. However, diving doesn’t elevate your heart rate to aerobic levels, it can feel very relaxing, and it doesn’t have a speed factor, so it can also be a leisure sport. So which is it, an extreme sport or a leisure sport? Well, it’s both, because everyone’s idea of a sport is different. One person’s high altitude climb is another person’s 60-foot reef dive. One person’s fear is another’s hobby.

Getting Fit for Diving

You’re probably asking, what does the classification of diving have to do with physical fitness levels for diving? Actually, a good bit. No matter what your view of scuba diving–extreme sport or leisure sport–it is an activity that requires a decent fitness level. All sports require some level of fitness, and scuba diving is a sport. In its extreme form, diving can require very high fitness levels, but even in its leisure, it still requires a base fitness level to be safe and enjoyable. You wouldn’t consider trying to climb Mt. Everest without being extremely fit, so why would you dive to 130 feet on a wreck with currents without being fit? Lack of fitness (even with the best training and equipment) can lead to your death doing either of these events.

Scuba diving takes you into a liquid environment forcing you to move yourself through the water by your own propulsion. Moving your body mass along with your diving equipment through a water column is difficult. Water acts as a drag, restricting and slowing your movements, requiring increased physical output. Divers burn hundreds of calories swimming along a reef for 30 minutes. Water is also generally colder than your body temperature, which increases body heat loss, which can weaken and tire you quickly if you’re not fit. Divers must also breathe compressed gas, which affects the body through nitrogen absorption, partial pressure exposures, and CO2 retention. Fitness levels can affect how your body deals with all of these. Studies have shown that unfit divers can retain 50% more CO2 than fit divers. CO2 can cause fatigue, increase your chances of decompression illness (DCI), oxygen toxicity, and nitrogen narcosis.

Respiration is also different while underwater. The water pressure on your body, breathing through your mouth, the compressed air in your tank, and energy outputs required to move yourself through the water all affect your respiratory system. Cardiovascular fitness is important to maintain a healthy respiratory system for any kind of diving. It also increases your ability to dive longer on a single tank and significantly reduces your fatigue levels during and after a dive.

Environmental conditions can also play a big role in required fitness levels. Swimming against and dealing with currents, swimming back to the boat when you surface a good distance away, getting in and out of the water in full equipment when the seas are rough, and moving through the surf on a shore dive can all place stresses on an unfit diver. These stresses can increase diver fatigue, increase your air consumption, and lead to potentially dangerous situations. Being physically fit can mitigate these situations and increase the enjoyment and safety of your dive.

The underwater environment places stresses on your body that, only through fitness, can be better controlled. Divers who are out of shape can easily get cramps, fatigue quickly, succumb to DCI and nitrogen narcosis more quickly, cannot effectively control their breathing rate, and are not able to provide adequate assistance in an emergency situation to themselves or anyone else. No matter what your fitness level is, always choose the dives that meet your physical abilities and recognize that some forms of diving require greater fitness levels than others.

Get your cardiovascular training in gear

The first step in increasing your fitness levels is to consult your doctor about your current health state. Get a complete physical exam and review your health with your doctor. Explain that you’re getting into diving or are already diving and want to increase your level of fitness. After consulting with your doctor, work on a plan to increase your overall fitness levels. Join a gym and work with a personal trainer or find a good book and build an exercise program that fits you best. Work on both your cardiovascular conditioning and your strength conditioning. Set realistic goals for yourself and challenge yourself to reach those goals. You’ll begin to notice a difference within a couple of weeks. Keep with your program. Don’t let outside influences dictate your fitness program. Not only will you feel better about yourself and build a healthier body, you’ll notice that you’re not as fatigued during and after a dive, that your tank lasts longer on dives, and that you have more overall energy. You’ll also have more confidence and be able to handle emergency situations much better.

Scuba diving is a sport just like any other. Participating in sporting events requires a decent fitness level, so you should think of diving just like you would any other sport. You don’t have to be able to run a marathon to scuba dive, but you should exercise regularly to build or maintain your fitness levels so that each time you go diving, you have the physical ability to do the dive safely, and so that you can be relied upon to help in an emergency situation. Good physical condition is essential for safe and fun scuba diving, so get your program started today. You’ve probably invested thousands of dollars in your scuba training, dive equipment, and diving vacations, now invest in your physical health so that you can get the most out of every dive