This guest post on the benefits of swimming is by Amanda Saltzman, M.D., a urologist, world class swimmer representing Canada at multiple international competitions and Senior Contributor for ExerciseMenu.com.
My goal is to pique your interest in one of my favorite activities – swimming. I use the word “swimming” in a very broad sense, including any activity in the water, from doing laps to diving to water aerobics. The Olympics remain a popular sport, so hopefully this will create some interest in events you don’t normally tune into.
The biggest benefit of swimming is that it involves ZERO impact, called non-weight-bearing exercise. In non-weight-bearing your joints don’t experience the same stress as they do on land. Think about it – when you run or walk, every time your foot hits the ground the impact travels up your foot through the rest of your body. This is called weight-bearing exercise. Your joints are the shock absorbers that absorb most of this impact, explaining why running can sometimes cause sore ankles, knees or hips. In the water, you never have any impact on your joints, meaning it is an ideal activity for those with arthritis, degenerative joint disease, osteoporosis, an increased risk of fracture or painful joints. Reduced impact explains why water aerobics is a popular activity for older ladies. Water aerobics is also a great modality for rehabilitation, again because there is no weight-bearing, so range of motion and strength can be improved without the impact that gravity creates on land.
It’s important to remember that children and teenagers need weight-bearing exercise for bone growth and future strength. For young girls especially, weight-bearing exercise increases their total bone mass, which decreases the chance they will experience osteoporosis in the future. The graph below illustrates this. We have age on the horizontal axis and bone mass on the vertical axis. As you can see, bone density peaks between age 30 and 40. Before age 30, the bone grows, particularly during puberty when estrogen kicks in, as it promotes bone growth. This phase can be influenced by weight-bearing exercise, meaning it can help make the peak bone mass higher. After age 40, bone mass gradually decreases, and then greatly decreases after menopause because there is no more estrogen to stimulate bone growth. If you start at a higher peak, you have more cushion so to speak, before getting to osteoporosis.
For those who are parents, whether you know how to swim or not, one of the best gifts you can give to your kids is swimming lessons (it’s never too late for you to learn either!). It’s important that kids learn how to swim from a structured and proven curriculum. Swimming lessons teach kids to be comfortable in the water as well as technique for the basic strokes. Lessons will also teach them basic first aid, CPR and how to rescue someone should they be in trouble in or around water. Believe it or not, these are important life skills that your child will likely need one day, even if it’s for you after you trip and sprain your ankle! Most pools offer extensive swimming lessons throughout the summer, a great way for your kids to spend all their extra free time!
Of course when we talk about activity around water, we can’t dismiss an important aspect – safety. A few things to remember:
1. Alcohol and swimming don’t mix, ever.
2. Keep kids within arms reach – it only takes a few inches of water and a few seconds for a child to drown.
3. Rehydrate at all times since you can’t feel yourself sweating.
4. Wear sunscreen if you’re outside.
Additionally, be very careful in open water. The open water is beautiful and adds an aspect of something new, but there are some serious potential dangers. Current and undertows are two such surprises that you can’t judge from the shore. So is depth. And remember that you can rarely see what lies beneath – rocks and underwater flora can be difficult things to contend with. And if you’re like me, you may be a bit apprehensive about the things that live underwater!
A few words on the different aquatic events that you can see in the summer Olympics:
Speed swimming – this is the traditional lap swimming (freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke) that you see in the Olympics. Powerhouse countries are the USA (Michael Phelps anyone?), Australia, China, South Africa, Netherlands.
Diving – this involves doing somersaults and twists from the diving board. There are individual events as well as synchronized diving events (two divers jump and twist together in perfect unison). Powerhouse countries are China, Russia, USA, Canada, Australia.
Water polo – this is similar to soccer or hockey, but in the water! This can be a very aggressive sport and what you see above water is nothing compared to what’s going on below. Powerhouse countries are Hungary, Italy, Croatia, Serbia.
Synchronized Swimming – a combination of dancing and gymnastics in the water. This is my personal favorite. Of course it looks beautiful with the costumes and makeup and stunts, but be warned, it has been compared to sprinting up a massive hill while holding your breath. And don’t forget to smile! That’s no easy feat. Powerhouse countries include China, Russia, Spain, Canada.
Now that you are more familiar with swimming, how can you incorporate this non-weight-bearing exercise into your workout routine? Share your thoughts below!