Until I was 9 or 10 years old, I was terrified of drowning. I’d spent my childhood summers at San Diego’s Del Mar and La Jolla beaches with family and friends. On one of these trips, a relative held my hand as we inched into the water, against small waves. The waves began to build as my relative promised she wouldn’t let go. My excitement blinded me to the oncoming monster wave, and—poof. The hand that had been anchoring me was gone, and my small face was pushed into the sandy bottom, nose filled with salt and liquid and cold. I was dazed coming out, collapsing onto the sand while I struggled for breath, making the solemn vow, as a scrawny 7–year–old, never to set foot in the ocean again.
I grew so afraid of drowning that I asked to be bathed in the tub rather than take showers; my mother, a woman of infinite patience, would place a dry towel over my face to make sure I didn’t “drown.” Eventually, she realized the ridiculousness of my situation, and enrolled me in a swimming class at UCSF—unbeknownst to me. I was angry at having been tricked into attendance—refusing to get in the water during the first session—but over time, the water became my second home, and it’s remained a practice that is equally calming, stretching, challenging, and tiring, in the best of ways.
Why swimming? In the trendy world of fitness filled with Zumba, yoga, kickboxing, treadmilling, weightlifting, rock climbing, bar-methoding, pole dancing, aerial conditioning, soul spinning, and mountain scaling—swimming is either attributed to Olympic athletes or retirees looking for a way to keep their arthritis at bay. Here are ten things that were true for me in my mermaid preteens, and are true for kids and grown-ups alike—compelling, if not convincing, reasons to find a clean pool and get your swim on.
If you’re into in yoga, climbing, biking, hiking, or running, but want to ease the impact on your joints, swimming helps you build strength and endurance in a way that doesn’t require post-workout “healing”—shin splints, ice packs, epsom baths, Advil. You’ll feel stronger for the other activities you enjoy, as your energy flows from your strengthened muscle groups and your core.
You know that blissful calm that washes over you when you hold your face under the showerhead? The same thing happens during a good swim session. You’re not looking at the girl with the Lululemon leggings; you’re not blocking out the the grunting of the guy doing free weights; you’re completely alone with yourself, and the flow of the world around you. Your thoughts move in and out with your breath, up and down with the stretching of your limbs. The quiet adds an element of mindfulness to your practice.
Because sometimes you need to allow yourself to be alone—to cut off interaction from all things that buzz, beep, and talk.
The freedom to perform daring feats of flexibility—acrobatic turns, kicks, and somersaults—is easily done in the weightlessness of water. You can securely experiment with the way your body moves in a way that is different from your every day movements and posture.
Pushing yourself through water requires the active engagement of different muscle groups all at once: your pecs, your neck, your tush, and, predominantly, your core. This gives your body a deeper and more holistic workout than other activities, like running or biking, which are directly engaging specific, limited muscle groups.
6. Anxiety Reduction
Have you ever felt the satisfying exhaustion that comes with a good swim? Your body feels worked, your limbs feel loose, and all you can think about is crawling into a bed and dozing off. Whatever you’re dealing with—stress, anxiety, uncertainty—can be washed away by the calm tiredness of a good set of laps. You’re also training yourself to respond to stress with physical activity and redirection of energy—rather than chocolate ice cream or alcohol.
7. Increased Lung Capacity
Breathing is an important, and often-overlooked, aspect of our daily lives. The ability to maintain breath while walking up a hill; the ability to take a moment outside of the office and breathe deep after a stressful work situation; the ability to take a few calming breaths before sleeping—all of these are helped by the breathing practiced in the pool, and the respiratory pace you set for yourself as you establish a rhythm between movement and breath.
Swimming is such an engaging workout that you can eat things the size of your face when you’re done. I’ve listed burritos, but pizza is absolutely fine and encouraged.
Ever heard the term “sleep on it?” How about a new term —”swim on it?” Anything that you’ve been pondering at work, at home, or internally gets some serious attention when you’re alone and doing repetitive motions in a contained space. You may emerge with a physical workout, as well as solutions to problems you don’t have time for during the workday, or during your time spent lounging at home.
Because I was young, and because I loved dreams about flying, and movies about space, FLOATING is a completely legitimate reason to swim. With the demands, noise, and weighing-down of our daily lives—stress, social media, demands, expectations, bills, pills, and days spent fantasizing upon our windowsills—we need something that allows us to completely let go. We need something unattached to our phones. We need something that allows us to be ourselves within a sacred, silent space—something as primal as water, and as freeing as solitude. We float physically, but we are also floating mentally—not forcing ourselves to urge words, not standing on a treadmill around a multitude of strangers, just in a space of our own—a space contained, yet open. Fluid, yet pushing us back. We float until we are refreshed, ready to re-enter our lives with lighter shoulders. So find that pool, and get your suits on. The yoga studio / climbing gym / pole dancing class can wait.
Featured photo credit: Mallorca Beach, mruizdeassin via pixabay.com