The Case for Swimming as the Best Exercise

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The Case for Swimming as the Best Exercise

By Kathy Megyeri

OK, I admit it. I really am an old woman with an arthritic hip but when I get in the YWCA’s swimming pool, I think I look, act and feel like Esther Williams. Swimming is great for the body, mind and soul as it works the entire body, doesn’t hurt, burns calories, builds stronger muscles, heart, lungs and tones the body everywhere. It helps the cardiovascular system, builds strength and endurance due to the water’s moderate resistance, and as Olympic medalist Maya DiRado says, “Swimming is a great stress reliever.”

Kathy Megyeri poses with her swimming gear.
Kathy Megyeri poses with her swimming gear.

What are the downsides to swimming daily?

But now to the “belly flops” of swimming: It does dry and discolor hair. Chlorine and bromine react with the hair’s cuticle and protective oils and opens hair to copper compounds that give hair a greenish hue and cause dryness and damage.

The solution is to wear swim caps (I wear three) and to wash your hair with water before and after swimming. Hair, like a sponge, can only absorb so much water so loading your hair with water and conditioner before swimming leaves no space for chlorine to fill. Granted, there can be more pronounced damage if you are blonde or color your hair as I do, but the sun outside can be just as damaging.

Secondly, some might be allergic or sensitive to the pool’s chlorine or to the microscopic parasites found in fresh or salt water and develop swimmer’s itch called “cercarial dermatitis,” so one should rinse off before and after swimming and be careful of unsafe water conditions. 

Thirdly, if you swim every day, as I do, your skin may dry out, according to my dermatologist, as chlorine strips your skin of natural oils, but it is not hazardous. Shower after your workout and apply a good moisturizer, preferably one that includes ceramides and alpha hydroxy, and particularly apply it to your thin skin areas like elbows, chest, shoulders and under your eyes. 

Fear not, the health benefits greatly out weigh the surface level risks of swimming daily.
Fear not, the health benefits greatly out weigh the surface level risks of swimming daily.

Also, your nails may become dry, cracked or easily break because of the chlorine, so don’t use too much nail polish remover but do use a strengthening top coat. Nail polish is protective as well. I also take biotin to improve the strength of my hair and nails, and salt water is certainly safer on skin, hair and eyes. 

One should also wear goggles to protect the eyes from the chlorine, sweat and traces of urine so red eyes don’t occur. Some use saline eye drops, but one should not wear contacts in the water or else the risk of an eye infection may occur from any bacteria in the water that chlorine doesn’t kill.

And when is the best time to swim? According to suit manufacturer Speedo, swimming on an empty stomach an hour before breakfast is the best because your carbohydrate stores have been depleted overnight so your body has to raid your fat stores for fuel. And you’re then waking up your body’s metabolism which will burn calories faster throughout the day even though you’re sedentary after exercising. However, swimming is good for toning muscles and burning calories any time of day.

There are benefits to swimming, right?

Now for the high dive or the real advantages of this recommended exercise. The highest recommendation is made for those who suffer from back issues. This low-impact horizontal workout counterbalances the time spent sitting at a desk or long-distance driving. It’s better for your back than other aerobic exercises because there’s no hard impact on your back like running or bending forward on a bike. Thus, your posture improves. I use both a mask and snorkel to keep my back level and my strokes even, so I don’t even have to lift my head to breathe.

Secondly, swimming decreases stress levels because of its buoyancy, resistance, hydrostatic pressure and thermal conduction, according to the Journal of Pain Research. Muscle activation and range of movement are the advantages. You’ll also breathe more efficiently and in turn develop a lower resting heart rate and blood pressure. And you will sleep better at nightStudies at Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep tell us that those over 55 who exercise sleep better and longer and fall asleep more quickly, even if the exercise is only for thirty minutes. Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer, says, “Sleep is when you naturally grow and your body recovers.”

The weightlessness of floating in and on the water can help reduce stress and allow for a great cooling, low-impact workout.
The weightlessness of floating in and on the water can help reduce stress and allow for a great cooling, low-impact workout.

Best of all, you’ll add years to your life, according to the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, which found that swimming reduces one’s chances of dying prematurely. The study’s author, Steven N. Blair, said 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 70 minutes of vigorous exercise each week is recommended, and swimming can be both moderate and vigorous, depending on how fast you swim and for how long. He concluded that he’s not saying swimming is better than other exercises, but swimmers had a significantly lower risk of all-cause mortality compared not only to those with sedentary lifestyles but also to either walkers or joggers. What an endorsement for old ladies like me with arthritis.

So I’ll just keep on swimming with my caps, snorkel and goggles and pretending I’m really the aquatic creature I’ve always wanted to be. 

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