If there is ever a season that offers ample opportunity to jumpstart a healthy lifestyle and strengthen the relationships that provide the purpose for positive behaviors, it’s summer.
For me, the summer months mean extra time with my 5-year-old grandson Luca at the Jersey Shore. Keeping up with the little guy is a constant reminder of the dividends produced by my workouts and dietary regimen.
And when it comes to physical activities, the summer highlights one of the most popular, and physically and mentally beneficial exercises: swimming.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, swimming is the fourth most popular sports activity in the United States and a good way to get regular aerobic physical activity. Just 2.5 hours per week of aerobic physical activity, like swimming, can decrease the risk of chronic illnesses. Swimmers have about half the risk of death compared to inactive people. The CDC also notes that water-based exercise allows people to work out longer than they can on land without increased effort or joint or muscle pain.
Swimming is the largest participation sport in England. Swim England, the national governing body for swimming, touts several benefits of swimming. People get a full body workout whether they swim a gentle breaststroke or hammer butterfly. Plus, exercising in water makes the body work harder, so 30 minutes in a pool is worth 45 minutes of the same activity on land. Swimming regularly can lower stress levels, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve sleep patterns. Swimming is also one of the most effective ways to burn calories and increase energy levels.
A Harvard Medical School report explains how water supports and cushions the body, eliminating the kind of pounding associated with running. Because it’s easy on the joints and muscles, swimming often is recommended for people with arthritis and other chronic conditions. The resistance of water also allows people to work out vigorously with little chance of injury.
Swimming is one of the few activities than can span a lifetime, and it’s never too late to start.
The National Institute on Aging says evidence indicates that people who begin exercise training in later life — for instance in their 60s or 70s — can experience improved heart function. In one study, researchers with the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging observed a decreased risk of a coronary event, like a heart attack, in older men who took part in high-intensity, leisure-time physical activities like lap swimming.
In addition to benefits for the heart, the NIA says research shows that exercise, such as swimming, helps breathlessness and fatigue in older people. Such endurance exercises increase stamina and improve the health of the lungs, circulatory system and heart.
A range of options, ages and applications
Medical experts at the Mayo Clinic call the swimming pool “the great equalizer,” pointing out that it is a place where people of all ages and abilities can get a fun workout — not just swimming laps. They recommend using the pool to explore both aerobics and resistance training.
They note one study that showed that a long-term water exercise program was actually more effective than working out on land to build muscle strength. They also point to other research that has shown that joint-friendly aquatic exercise can improve physical functioning in adults over 50.
Scholars at Michigan State University note that if people are not into traditional swimming, there are many other water-based exercises that can have a positive effect on the body. They recommend walking or running in water, treading water, or using the walls of the pool or a kick board for kicking and doing leg lifts.
American Senior Communities provides some great context, regardless of your age. They place water-based workouts into four categories: water aerobics like walking, dancing and other aerobic exercises that resemble classes on land; basic swimming; water resistance exercises, like doing arm curls, leg swings and calf raises; and water relaxation exercises such as aqua yoga and Pilates.
In another dimension that illustrates the breadth of benefits associated with water-based activity, a publication of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability points out that being gravity free is one of the greatest benefits of water for people with and without disabilities. Water exercises are highly recommended for people with severe disabilities and high blood pressure. In fact, the resistance of water makes it a great environment for those with back pain and musculoskeletal injuries or diseases.
Natural bodies of water
While much of my focus has been on pool swimming, it’s important to recognize that there are many natural bodies of water that offer great opportunities to blend fun and fitness. Another CDC report acknowledges that spending time in natural bodies of water — like oceans, lakes and rivers — is a great way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends.
While this can help people stay active, it is important to know that the water also can spread germs that make people sick. Before people plan a visit to any natural body of water, it is important to check water quality conditions to protect their health. Knowing this information also can prevent a trip to a swim area that may be closed due to health risks or water safety reasons.
Closing the loop
Swimming is in a unique category that should appeal to those looking to find a pathway to fitness and continuing inspiration for healthy behavior. Summer presents a great time to literally “stick your toe in the water” of healthy living. Long-term, swimming offers a year-round, lifetime means to get a full-body workout and find common ground to enjoy time with loved ones.
Luca and I are not yet doing laps together in the pool, but the workout I get chasing him around the beach, and in and out of the ocean’s edge is a precursor to what the future may hold. It is certainly an indicator that I’ll need my stamina as long as possible if I’m going to be the engaged grandfather I aspire to be.
Go ahead, jump in the pool. It’s a leap with the potential for long-term benefits.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of “Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50.” Read more from Louis on his website.