The Zen Of Swimming

This blog was originally published on Just Care.

I want to break the record for longest living human. I also want to keep feeling as strong and pain-free as possible. So when I turned 50, I started walking everywhere I needed to go instead of taking public transportation, and I joined a gym. Walking was a pleasure, but the gym was not.

At 55, I joined a different gym—one that had a pool. I hadn’t been swimming for 35 years, but doing laps sounded a lot more fun than push-ups and treadmills.

As soon as I joined, I panicked.
– Which lock should I buy?
– How cold is the water going to be?
– Will I have to wear a stupid bathing cap?
– Ugh. Group showers.
– Oh my god, what do I look like in a bathing suit these days??

I worried that everyone would swim faster than me, that I would jam up my lane and they’d all hate me. Would I swim half a lap and then feel like I was going to die and give up?

But the image of my 70, 80, 90-plus-year-old self thump, thump, thumping along on a treadmill drove me to deal with the fears and give swimming a try. It turns out, science is on my side.

What Science Says About Swimming and Aging

A 32 year study of men ages 20 to 90 found that swimmers had the lowest mortality rate, beating walkers and even runners.
Swimming peels off the pounds. Even a slow crawl burns more calories than walking or cycling, and you’d have to run six miles per hour or more to beat it.

Swimming is the ideal exercise for arthritis pain management and for keeping your joints flexible.

“The most prevalent heart disease risk factor for older people is high blood pressure,” Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin points out, and swimming, he says, is very effective in reducing blood pressure.

According to Joel M Stager, director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming (really!) at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, “Older swimmers maintain their muscle mass better than those who don’t swim, have much lower cardiovascular risk factors than non-swimmers… and score higher on all the various facets of ‘wellness.’ ” But one of the most important benefits, Stager says, is the fact that swimmers have much better balance than their non-swimming contemporaries. “This is a critical issue with aging. Bad balance leads to falls, falls lead to decreased activity and that leads to poor quality of life and a loss of independence. So, swim.”

The Art of Being a Novice

I did. The first time I swam a lap, I was so out of breath that I was ready to quit on the spot. As I clung to the far side of the pool, huffing and puffing, a very kind lifeguard walked over and said,

“Take your time. Swim a lap, rest, then maybe swim another.” He assured me that I would build up my stamina. By taking a lot of rests, I swam an incredible 14 laps that day. Today, I swim anywhere from one to 10 miles a week.

Swimming also has turned out to be a surprisingly social activity. In New York City, where I live, I’ve found swimming groups to join and activities to engage in, including an annual lap swim contest with a dinner and party hosted by NYC Parks & Recreation.

Swimming is also wonderfully intergenerational. At my pool I regularly swim with people from their 20s to their 90s. As far as my other fears and concerns go:

I found a simple and inexpensive Master Lock at my local drugstore.

I’m fortunate enough to swim in a heated pool, but it’s still cold sometimes. I won’t lie: On those days, I hate that first minute.

I don’t have to wear a stupid bathing cap, but I choose to, because it saves my hair. A tip for women: If you’re worried about the effect of chlorine on your locks, wet your hair, lather in some conditioner and cover it with your bathing cap while you swim.
Group showers equal girl talk, and sharing swimming tips and stories.

How do I look in a bathing suit? Better than I would have had if I not been swimming for the past six years. For the record, I wear tankini tops and men’s square-leg bottoms. It’s a flattering combination for the self-conscious.

If you’re tempted to try, Google “public pools near me” and pick one that fits your budget. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a lake or ocean nearby. Just remember my friendly lifeguard’s advice: Start slowly.

It’s a wonderful world out there, swimming back and forth in the calming waters. Joel Stager describes it as “almost meditative in nature,” and I agree. Instead of running on a treadmill, I brace my feet against the side of a pool and glide off into the bright blue buoyant world, swimming back and forth at whatever relaxing or invigorating pace I feel like taking that day.