Carel demonstrating what a double tank dive is NOT

Scuba diving and fitness

A recent article from Shape magazine that has been breathlessly circulating in some of the scuba news circles I follow claims that scuba diving is the “new celebrity fitness trend” that “burns tons of calories while tightening and toning your body”. The rest of the article is a thinly-disguised marketing advertorial for PADI, but we’ll overlook that in favour of its ostensible main point: scuba diving will make you fit (and as hot as a Hollywood star).

I’m not a fitness expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I dive quite a lot (a few dives every weekend, weather permitting) and Tony dives even more (a few dives every day, weather permitting). I’d like to make the following observations:

  • One of the things I love about diving is that it can be done by people of almost any body shape and level of physical ability, provided you’re able to help yourself, put together and carry your kit to the water, and display a certain level of watermanship and stamina. As long as this base level of strength and fitness is there and you have none of the medical conditions that are incompatible with diving, nothing precludes you from being a scuba diver. The very regular scuba divers I know – those of whom it could be said that diving is their primary form of exercise – are by no means a uniformly lean and toned group of individuals. Clearly I’m missing something.
  • Diving – the underwater part, at least – is actually mostly about expending as little energy as possible. If you’re using your arms or kicking frantically, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG! The whole idea is not to get out of breath or to elevate your heart rate (leading to panic). This doesn’t sound like fat-burning exercise to me.
  • Your body does expend energy keeping you warm on a dive – specially in the Atlantic in a wetsuit! The toasted sandwich, chocolate bar, bag of nuts or hot chocolate you consume after the dive, however, replaces all the calories you just burned, plus some. If being cold assisted with weight loss and made you fit, there’d be fewer treadmills and more industrial-sized refrigerators at your local Virgin Active.

Tony and I both had almost a month off diving in January, because he’d had surgery. He returned to work at the end of January, doing three shore dives that weekend. Afterwards, we were both quite stiff and more tired than we usually are after diving, because clearly regular diving does involve some level of conditioning. But what sort of exercise had we experienced? Could two and a half hours underwater really make our muscles feel this way?

The key, however, was that our muscles were stiff. One of the dives was at Sandy Cove, involving a bit of mountaineering. The other two were at Long Beach, and all three were with students. In each case, twelve cylinders and six boxes of dive gear had to be unpacked out of Tony’s divemobile, and at the end of the day packed away again (Tony insists on doing this – he has a “system” and I get in the way!). We had to lift our kit onto our backs, walk to the water, and – in my case – wrestle with a fellow diver’s new BCD and ill-fitting weight belt for 20 minutes while standing in thigh deep water in full kit. After the dive we had to return the way we came. All the exertion took place before and after the dives – the time underwater was extremely slow and relaxing.

If you’re going to get any conditioning from your scuba diving, I think it’ll primarily be in toting 20-30 kilograms of gear around on your back and around your waist, before and after you get in the water. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that diving will fulfill all your exercise requirements unless you’re actually working (e.g. as a commercial diver, a very active archaeologist or a fast-swimming map maker) underwater.

If, like me, you’re a weekend diver, rather than relying on diving to get you fit, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you are fit to dive. Keeping yourself fit to dive would involve doing other forms of exercise during the week to improve your strength and cardiovascular fitness. I’m not saying you won’t get some physical benefit from scuba diving, but it won’t make you look like Jessica Alba or Matthew McConaughey unless it’s your full time job (and even then, perhaps not!).

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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