Swimming Benefits Body, Mind and Spirit

There’s something very peaceful about being completely submerged in a pool of water. If just briefly, this tranquil, all-forgiving liquid has a way of drowning out the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
But that is not the reason to take up swimming.
Rather, it’s one of many.

Aquatic exercise is not only described as meditative by those who have taken the plunge, it’s also an excellent cardiovascular workout. In addition, it’s non-weight bearing, making it easy on the joints and ideal for those who are recovering from injuries or surgeries or suffering from inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It is also an exercise you can generally participate in well into old age.

Dr. Curtis Turchin, a Sebastopol-based chiropractor whose patients include athletes and people who have serious injuries or who are recovering from surgeries, believes there are many advantages to swimming.

“Number one, when you get in the water, you lose gravity, so it reduces the gravitational pull on your body and the side effects that can occur from weight-bearing exercise,” said Turchin, who swims about four days a week at Ives Pool in West County.

For example, if someone is a runner or does a lot of hiking, there is a lot of impact there, especially for the low back, hips, knees and feet. So the advantage of swimming is—because you are not exerting muscles against something rigid, such as a weight machine, the ground when you run or walk, or a bike pedal, and instead are pushing your body against a fluid medium—your exercise is much more gentle on all of your joints. The last benefit is that it’s an extremely powerful cardiovascular exercise, which means it’s really good for the heart and lungs because you really have to use your breath,” he said.
Exercise in general has lots of benefits, he added. Whether you are jogging, hiking, riding a bike, doing tai chi or swimming, there is a meditative aspect to it. However, when you jog or walk you have to watch out for potholes, for instance—but when you are in the water, it’s quiet and it’s a safe place to be “because you aren’t going to trip and stumble. The water is very forgiving and safe. So because of that lack of needing to be hyper-vigilant, there’s a very peaceful aspect to swimming,” Turchin said.
Using a snorkel can enhance this, he noted. “It’s less work because you don’t have to twist your neck.

You will also see people swimming with fins, some with wet suits, or paddles on their hands. What this does is make people become more like a fish. Since they don’t have to lift their head up to breathe, it becomes quieter and more meditative because with fins and a snorkel, for example, the workout is more balanced. You can work out longer with less effort and be in a more comfortable position in the water,” he said.

Either way, swimming is a “great sport and a great way to use the water for exercise,” said Lauren Ahlgren, aquatics director at Parkpoint Health Club in Healdsburg.

“You are definitely getting a cardio workout and you are using all kinds of muscles; each stroke is going to use different muscles in your body. There’s a lot of core work involved. It’s also really great if you have injuries because it’s softer on your joints, so people who want to be active and have to recover from injuries can use that instead of land exercise. You don’t have gravity going against you, but you are still moving those joints and it’s not putting a lot of pressure on them. You are weightless, like being in space,” Ahlgren said, noting she has always been drawn to the water.

“Swimming is like exercising my body, mind and soul. It’s very therapeutic and then sometimes you find yourself in the zone, like when someone gets a runner’s high. It’s easier, for me, in the pool to find that, as opposed to running, which I also do,” she said.

Not only is swimming good exercise, it’s good to know how to keep your head above water.
“I have people of all ages coming to me who can kind of swim, but aren’t very comfortable or able to move through the water efficiently. Safety-wise it’s important to not only be efficient in the water, but comfortable as well,” she said. “One of the hardest things is just the breathing part, because (unlike outside of the water) you have to tell your body to breathe (when in the water).”

Being comfortable in the water wasn’t something that now-regular swimmer Marypat Moore was before taking a class at Parkpoint. Prior to a couple of years ago, this 62-year-old woman hadn’t swum since she was 15.

“It feels terrific…You get a cardio workout, but you also get in a peaceful meditative zone. It’s fun and I just feel like I am getting a great overall body workout. I also feel like I have latched onto something that I will be able to do until I am very old… I will be swimming when I am 100,” Moore said, noting she used to do zumba and other types of dance that were strenuous for her feet and joints. As a result she was seeing an acupuncturist for a foot problem and she was told she ought to try swimming.

“I looked at her and said, ‘That is never going to happen.’ I was just not a swimmer and when I looked at that lap pool, I thought there is no way I would make it down one lane.”

But that changed when her health club held March Madness, then called Shades of Glory, and she knew if she wanted to complete it, she would need to swim. Basically it required she take three dozen or so different types of exercise classes within a month.

“If you wanted to conquer the card, they requested that you lap swim for 20 minutes. It was a Master Swim coach named Lorna, who said, ‘Come on in and try it.’ So I just started swimming with her and she really helped me. I just started out doing what I could and now I am up to swimming 2,600 yards, three times a week. Without having that Master’s class, without having some individual attention, I don’t think I would have stuck with it,” Moore said.

Triathlete Jesse Boardman also swims in a Master’s Swim program at Parkpoint, three times a week, minimum, for an hour at a time. He is in an advanced class for serious swimmers. Nonetheless, he still finds it therapeutic.

“I love it. It’s exercise and it’s kind of… meditative. The feel of being in the water, it’s very natural. There are no distractions… something very therapeutic about it. It’s unbelievable for cardio, an incredible cardio workout,” he said.

“Swimming is also non-weight-bearing so it’s certainly beneficial to the body. I love running, but there is not that pounding on the back (with swimming). There are people at our gym in their 90s and they still swim. You don’t see that with runners, particularly.”

For Boardman and others like him, one plus of being in a Masters Swim program is that it offers a certain accountability and camaraderie that helps keep you disciplined.

“If you sleep in a day and don’t show up, they are going to get on you for that. It’s a really positive environment. There’s something great about just swimming. There is no cattiness, we just get down to business, but it’s still playful. It’s very supportive and encouraging, but there is also a certain competitiveness and you have to be present. You can’t fake it. We can sometimes have eight people in our lane; you have to keep going, you can’t stop, because if you stop, you mess up the whole group,” said Boardman, clearly a dedicated athlete.

“For me exercise is my medicine. If I don’t get it, it’s not good,” Boardman said. “Six days a week I am doing something. It’s my fix, it’s my release. Anything else can come up during the day. If I have my workout in, my day is complete.”

Boardman’s son, 4, and daughter, 7, are also enrolled in swim programs.

“Our kids were in the water at 6-months-old,” he said. “We can’t go anywhere on vacation if there isn’t an ocean or a pool, that’s for sure.”

If you look historically at the use of water, there are many spiritual rituals that involve immersing ourselves in H20— whether it’s a baptism or bathing in a tub or surfing in the ocean, Turchin pointed out.

“There is something about going into the water that makes you feel like you cleanse yourself,” he said. “After you come out of the water, there is exhilaration and a kind of peace of mind you get that you don’t get from any other exercise, because you’ve been in the water.” SD