Is SCUBA Diving Hard on Your Body?

Is SCUBA diving hard on your body?

Recreational diving, providing you stay within depth and time limits that dive schools teach, diving is not hard on your body. However, there is evidence to suggest that commercial and very deep diving, can have long term effects on the lungs and small airways.

Humans have evolved to be the most successful land animal on the planet, we have conquered all the continents bar one a long time ago. We thrive in almost every environment from tundra to the tropical jungle and in each place we have adapted and made them our home.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that we would head under the water eventually too!

But going under the water is not something that humans have specifically evolved to do and when we do we can only go for as long as we can hold our breath without specific equipment to sustain us there.

By adding a tank of compressed air and a hose to breathe from it, we have been able to extend this time far longer than a single gasp of air, but this new environment is not what we have evolved for and as we can only stay down for certain amounts of time.

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So what exactly is this new environment doing to our bodies?

What we know is that the pressure that the water exerts onto every part of our bodies and results in a range of effects. But are these effects hard on our bodies?

The answer is a little ambiguous in that yes it is hard on our bodies, but that is reflected directly as to how deep we have gone, how long for and how fast we returned to the surface.

It can be so hard on our bodies that if not done correctly – it can kill us.

It’s all about pressure.

All the molecules that fill the air from the outer edge of our atmosphere right down to the surface of the ocean is known as one atmosphere (1 ATM). These molecules exert this pressure onto our bodies and as such we are in equilibrium with our normal environment.

Every 10 meters of seawater exerts the same pressure on your body as 1 ATM, so going down to 20 meters means we now have 3 ATMs on our bodies or 2 extra atmospheres of pressure that we normally would have.

One of the main things this extra pressure does to our bodies is to push the gas Nitrogen (N2) into our tissues. So staying down at 20m for an extended period means eventually our bodies will reach equilibrium again, with 3 times the amount of N2 we would have at the surface.

This is where things get hard on our bodies.

At one end of the spectrum: if we come up very fast from this depth the extra N2 in our bodies can start bubbling out of our tissues causing a range of issues called Decompression Sickness (DCS); at the other end of the spectrum: we come up very slowly, spending some time at 5 meters to allow our bodies to adjust, the extra N2 comes out slowly with very little noticeable effect on our bodies.

This loading and unloading of N2 does cause us to feel tired after diving, especially if we are deep diving multiple times a day, but that’s about as much as we will feel from diving being hard on our bodies.

SCUBA diving has an excellent safety record around the world and as long as divers stay within the limits of time and depth, feeling a little tired will be the extent of effects.

So as long as we abide by the limits of our dive computers or dive tables – we will be safe with little to no noticeable effect, but if we go deeper for longer than we should and ascend very quickly – things can get very hard on your body very quickly, requiring immediate medical assistance.

Is SCUBA Diving Physically Demanding?

Recreational diving is not physically demanding, unless you are diving in a strong current. The most physically demanding part of SCUBA diving is carrying all you dive gear before you get in the water and after you get out.

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Those tanks look heavy right? Yes, they are!

So swimming around with one on your back must be difficult right?

Not at all. All the equipment used for SCUBA can be quite heavy, the buoyancy control device (BCD), the regulator, wetsuit, fins, mask, the tank and obviously the extra dive weights we need to sink.

Sometimes you can feel very overloaded and even have difficulty walking on land with all this load, but once you hit the water it all changes as most of this equipment actually floats. We use weights to get us under the water and then counter that with some air inside our BCD so we float in mid-water.

When diving we tend to move slowly around, keeping our breathing slow and rhythmic. Unless there is a strong current, the dive itself should not be physically demanding, but getting into and out of the water can be.

What Can Happen to Your Body if you Don’t Follow the Limits Set?

Diving recklessly can be fatal, but usually will result in a range of issues with our body called Decompression Sickness (DCS).

What are the Effects of Decompression Sickness (DCS)?

This can include:

  • N2 bubbles in your joints causing mild to severe pain called generalized barotrauma.
  • Lung injuries, called pneumothorax (collapsed lung).
  • A gas embolism where air or N2 bubbles get into your blood.
  • Ear barotrauma where your eardrum is ruptured.

All this sounds bad, and it is!

However, it must be stressed that by sticking to the limits set, SCUBA is extremely safe and these are only the most severe issues that can happen if you dive outside these limits.

Is SCUBA Diving Bad for You in the Long Term?

For recreational divers and those who work in dive schools, as long as you stay within the dive limits (both time and depth) taught by your instructor, there are not long term effects. There is evidence to suggest that Commercial divers may be at risk of pulmonary issues.

People recreationally SCUBA dive every day all over the world.

While we have looked at how hard it can be on our bodies’ short term and if something goes wrong, but what about in the long term?

There are studies that have revealed evidence of small airways disease and accelerated lung function of deep-sea commercial divers and experimental deep diving, however at the recreational level where we seldom go below 40 meters and there is no evidence of long term effects on the body in the lungs.

Your ears can begin to have issues over time, but this is almost always in conjunction with an ear infection. So, for the weekend or monthly diver, or even the dive professional – there is little to worry about long-term when it comes to SCUBA.

Don’t Forget Your Dive Insurance!

Before you go out on any dive trip or holiday, it is essential to make sure you have insurance that covers you if something goes wrong. Check out our dive insurance article for more information.

Or go straight to these dive insurance company websites:


Diver Alert Network (DAN)

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SCUBA diving has an excellent safety record worldwide and literally, thousands of people would not dive every day if it was hard on your body or dangerous.

While we have outlined what can happen to your body if you don’t follow the rules; go too deep or ascend too fast, almost every dive you do really isn’t going to hurt or be hard on your body.

The most you may feel is a little sleepy afterwards, so get out there and start or keep diving without having to worry about it being too hard.

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Paul Fulbrook

Paul Fulbrook is a writer, scuba diver, ex-science teacher and marine biologist. He has a passion for coral reef biology, diving on coral reefs and writing about diving. He also loves cats and his children (sometimes).

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