2 scuba divers in open water holding hands

How Fit and Healthy Do You Need to Be to Scuba Dive?

If you’re wanting to get started in scuba diving, one question that you likely have is exactly how healthy and fit you need to be in order to be able to scuba. After all, those tanks certainly look quite heavy and you may have heard that diving can be tiring.

Also, depending on who you know that dives, you may have some misconceptions. For example, while I’m certainly not the fittest person, many of my friends who dive are quite healthy and muscular. So how healthy and fit do you need to be to scuba dive?

You do not have to be very fit to scuba dive, although the fitter you get, the better a diver you’ll be. Fitness improves cardiovascular fitness and helps account for the increased pressure with diving. Health is conditional upon preexisting conditions and may need a doctor’s clearance. Physical strength isn’t particularly needed but respiratory and cardiac health are primary requirements.

Let’s investigate these topics a bit more in depth. 

In this article, we’ll discuss some health concerns divers experience, how to know you’re in good health to dive, basic fitness needs, and tips for enhancing your diving fitness.

a female scuba diver giving the OK sign

Why is Health and Fitness Important for Divers?

To understand why health and fitness is important for divers, it is necessary to understand a bit about the physics of diving. Here, we’re talking about pressure. 

As you go deeper underwater, the weight of the water column above you produces increased pressure on your body.

This is measured in a unit called atmospheres. At the surface, our body experiences a pressure of one atmosphere. 

As we dive, this quickly increases. At 10 meters (32 feet), we experience two atmospheres, twice the pressure on our body. This increases by one atmosphere every 10 meters.

In other words, at 40 meters (roughly 130 feet), which is the limit for recreational diving, we experience a pressure of five atmospheres, which is five times the pressure on our body that we experience at the surface.

This has a number of effects. One of the first things you learn when you begin your scuba training is that it increases the absorption of nitrogen into our bodies. 

This can lead to conditions such as nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness if proper procedures are not followed.

However, something not frequently discussed is that the pressure simply puts a lot of strain on our normal bodily functions. If you experience respiratory issues at the surface, these will potentially be exacerbated at depth due to the strain created by the pressure. 

Thus, health and fitness are very important for divers.

artistic shot of a scuba diver and a beach

What are Health Concerns for Divers?

There are a wide range of health concerns for divers. In fact, some concerns can specifically interfere with a person’s ability to dive. 

When people think of health and fitness, they tend to think of physical strength. 

However, physical strength is not at all the most important health concern for a diver.

The two most critical aspects of health for divers are respiratory health and cardiac health. This is not surprising as breathing is a key skill for scuba divers in many ways. 

Additionally, as noted earlier, the pressure puts a high degree of strain on bodily functioning, particularly the respiratory and circulatory systems.

Another health condition that may have a negative effect on divers is ear, nose, and throat issues. 

Again, the culprit here is pressure. As we descend, the pressure change means we have to frequently perform a maneuver to equalize the pressure in our ears. Without doing this, divers experience pain and potential injury. Ear, nose, and throat issues may prevent a diver from being able to successfully adjust pressure.

So do you have health issues that prevent you from diving? 

Maybe, and maybe not. 

The most frequent medical conditions for divers are heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, which aligns with the general population. This means that there are lots of people with these conditions who are still able to dive.

Before engaging in your scuba training, you will have to fill out a questionnaire from the accrediting agency. This will ask about many conditions including asthma, allergies, headaches, seizures, and many more things. 

If you mark yes to any of these questions, you will need to get medically assessed and cleared by a doctor before diving.

However, having to get medical clearance is fairly common, especially if you’re starting diving past the age of 30. 

For example, I have asthma (and a number of other checkmarks on the form) but was easily medically cleared and have never had respiratory issues on a dive.

2 scuba divers watching an octopus

How Fit Should a Diver Be?

When people ask this, they are usually asking one of two things. Some are wondering the minimum fitness requirements for a diver while others are wondering the optimal fitness requirements of a diver.

Regarding minimum fitness, the best way to answer that is to state the requirements for being able to get in the pool for open water certification. 

Someone should be able to swim 200 yards without stopping and tread calm water for ten minutes. These are relatively easy goals to meet with a little practice and most people can do them without practice.

The goal of these requirements is to essentially ensure that someone can navigate basic conditions in the water. 

However, the major goal for perspective divers is to be comfortable being in the water. This doesn’t mean you have to be a great swimmer; just that you should feel ok in the deep end of a pool.

While these requirements demonstrate minimal fitness, optimal fitness for a diver is to be as fit as possible. There are many divers out there that aren’t very fit; however, enhancing our fitness improves our diving experience in a number of ways.

Perhaps most beneficially, improved fitness means better air consumption as your body is operating more efficiently, which can greatly increase your time underwater. 

Additionally, basic tasks such as carting your tank around will be easier. You’ll also find yourself better able to respond to emergency situations. 

Finally, research by the Divers Alert Network has found that lower body fat, in particular, is correlated with a lower chance of decompression sickness.

Now, when discussing fitness, we’ve been focused on a typical open water diving environment which is generally one with fairly calm seas and warm waters. You’ll need greater health and fitness for difficult conditions including cold water, diving with a dry suit, or with extensive currents.

2 scuba divers standing up getting ready to dive in shallow water

How Can I Improve My Diving Fitness?

Finally, for those wanting to improve their health and fitness, there are a number of things that you can do. 

Obviously, one of the main things is working out. For diving, particularly engaging in aerobic exercise can help improve your cardiovascular system. Eating healthy is also useful. However, there are many things you can do immediately before dives to improve your ability to safely engage in the dive.

First, it is critical not to get dehydrated. Drink plenty of water both the day before and immediately before the dive. You’ll also possibly want to have some water in between dives. Dehydration increases the chances of decompression sickness and can cause weakness, cramping, and decreased awareness.

Additionally, do not indulge in too much alcohol before diving. Diving hungover is not fun and can be a serious safety concern. It can cause dehydration and its negative effects and can vastly increase the likelihood of sea sickness. 

It also increases the likelihood and effects of nitrogen narcosis and causes greater heat loss.

Finally, make sure to get plenty of sleep the night before. Diving tired is not a good idea due to safety reasons as well as limiting the enjoyment of your dive. 

While diving may not feel strenuous, it does burn a lot of calories due to heat loss, which can make it easy to get tired during a day under the sea.

a single scuba diver going through a shoal of fish

Final Thoughts

Health and fitness are important concerns for life, and for diving. Diving does put a significant amount of stress on the body even if it is not overtly noticeable for many people. 

For individuals with significant health concerns, getting checked out by a physician before engaging in diving is important and may be required. However, many people with health conditions are deemed healthy enough to dive.

While a relatively low amount of fitness is required to engage in diving, building fitness can enhance a person’s diving experience including the efficiency of their air use. 

Improving fitness should be a long term goal for divers; however, a few basic things can be done to ensure optimal performance on each dive including being hydrated, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption the day before, and getting a good night’s rest. 

Mike Seals
Chief Crisp Eater at Guiness Brewey | + posts

Mike resides in landlocked Indiana but takes every opportunity to travel to warm waters for diving. When in his home state, he typically dives quarries. His favorite place to dive is the reef off of Ambergris Caye, Belize. When not diving, he works as a researcher, runs marathons, and spends time with his three kids.

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