Living Well | Let’s Go For a Swim!

Swimming makes exercise easy at any age.

elder-swimmingSwimming is second only to walking as the nation’s most popular recreational activity, and its benefits can be enjoyed regardless of age or infirmity. It is especially ideal for those with arthritis or knee or hip joints worn down by decades of weight-bearing activities.


It helps to preserve stamina, cardiac and respiratory function, muscle tone and flexibility as one ages. When done aerobically, swimming helps to keep arteries more elastic and clear of calcium deposits.


In studies of older swimmers, Joel Stager, associate director of the department of kinesiology at Indiana University, has found preliminary evidence that swimming helps to maintain higher brain functions, an important benefit given the aging of the population.


Ms. Sherr, who recently became one of Dr. Stager’s study subjects, explained: “Active swimmers appear to have greater cell density and connectedness in the cerebellum, which can improve gait and balance and help prevent falls. Master swimmers experience very little decline in the speed with which the brain tells muscles what to do.”


Once you’ve become efficient at swimming, it won’t do much for weight loss, though the calories burned can aid weight maintenance.


The breaststroke may be best for back pain.

well-swimMany people find that recreational swimming helps ease back pain, and there is research to back that up. But some strokes may be better than others.


An advantage to exercising in a pool is that the buoyancy of the water takes stress off the joints. At the same time, swimming and other aquatic exercises can strengthen back and core muscles.


Still, not everyone with back pain should jump in a pool, said Dr. Scott A. Rodeo, a team physician for U.S.A. Olympic Swimming in the last three Olympic Games. Back pain can have a number of potential causes, so the first thing to do is to get a careful evaluation and diagnosis. A doctor might recommend working with a physical therapist and starting off with standing exercises in the pool that involve bands and balls to strengthen the core and lower back muscles.


If you are cleared to swim, and are a beginner, pay close attention to your technique. Work with a coach or trainer if necessary. It may also be a good idea to start with the breaststroke, because the butterfly and freestyle strokes involve more trunk rotation. The backstroke is another good option, said Dr. Rodeo, who is co-chief of the sports medicine and shoulder service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.


“With all the other strokes, you have the potential for some spine hyperextension,” Dr. Rodeo said. “With the backstroke, being on your back, you don’t have as much hyperextension.”


Like any activity, begin gradually, swimming perhaps twice a week at first and then progressing slowly over four to six weeks, he said. In one study, Japanese researchers looked at 35 people with low back pain who were enrolled in an aquatic exercise program, which included swimming and walking in a pool. Almost all of the patients showed improvements after six months, but the researchers found that those who participated at least twice weekly showed more significant improvements than those who went only once a week. “The improvement in physical score was independent of the initial ability in swimming,” they wrote.


Swimming limits your injury risk.

swimming-exerciseIn some ways, the health effects of swimming are similar to those of land-based aerobic activities, such as jogging, walking or bicycling, said Hirofumi Tanaka, the director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. Like them, swimming is a “rhythmical aerobic exercise that you can maintain continuously” to improve cardiovascular and muscular health, he said. Experiments by Dr. Tanaka and others have found that swimming “is very effective at reducing blood pressure and improving vascular function,” just as walking and other land-based endurance exercises are.


The unique advantage of swimming is that it is done in water, which provides buoyancy and cooling, Dr. Tanaka said. “So the incidence of orthopedic injury as well as the rate of heat-related illnesses are both low,” he said.


But swimming has a notable drawback. “It seems to stimulate appetite,” Dr. Tanaka said, more so than do vigorous land-based exercises like running. As a result, swimming is not particularly effective at promoting weight loss or maintenance. In a 2005 study of exercise habits and body weight involving more than 15,000 adults ages 53 to 57, those who briskly walked, jogged or cycled gained little weight over the course of a decade. Those who swam tended to pack on pounds.


Still, “there is no doubt that swimming is a beneficial activity for other factors,” particularly cardiovascular health, Dr. Tanaka said. Just skip the celebratory cupcakes after your laps.


Swimming is a perfect time to be mindful.

swimmingBy swimming mindfully, we can transform routine lap sessions into an immersive form of moving meditation.


  • Begin each swim with an intention to be fully present in the water, rather than to just get laps in.
  • As you begin swimming, focus on each stroke. Notice the feeling of the wetness on your skin. Feel yourself — buoyant — moving through water.
  • Focus on your breath. As you take breaths, shift your focus from a stroke rhythm to a breathing rhythm, noticing the unbroken alternation of in-breaths and out-breaths. How does your body accommodate to this rhythm?
  • Align head and spine. Visualize being towed forward by a line attached to the top of your head, so your head and spine are both lengthening and always moving in the direction you want to travel.
  • As you continue with your strokes, focus on the feeling of your arms entering and leaving the water. Feel the cool, dry air on your arms briefly; then the wet thickness of the water for a longer period of submersion.
  • Listen to the sounds of swimming. Hear the splashes, the bubbles and your own breath. How quietly can you swim?
  • Continue your strokes, noticing how far your arms are reaching in front of you, striving to feel “taller” with each stroke.
  • As you complete your swim, be grateful for your ability to merge mind and body, moving like water.




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