Fitness and health related to swimming

‘Fitness’ is the explicit goal of most people who pursue a regime of regular exercise. But do we really know what we mean by it? Are we doing the kind of thing that is truly conducive to achieving our goals? A fuller understanding of fitness and a clearer idea of what to look for in exercise might make us adjust our view of what to do and how to do it. While exercise brings indisputable benefits, fitness is not synonymous with health. We know that we can appear very ‘fit’ but be quite unhealthy. When we do strenuous, repetitive exercise for the sake of fitness, are we aware of what is really happening to our bodies? The value of a fitness regime which is boring, painful, and may result in chronic injury is surely questionable. We are encouraged to think that a trim, muscular or athletic image should make us more attractive (or at least make us feel more attractive). But insight into what we do to ourselves when we exercise can provide the catalyst for radical change in our approach to the whole question of fitness and health.

Take a moment to ask yourself what ‘fitness’ means to you. Knowing what you assume ‘fitness’ should involve can help to throw light on how and why to pursue it. By learning to make the best use of your time and energy, you ultimately stand to enhance immeasurably the value of the exercise you take, as of any activity you choose to engage in.

So what is a healthy approach to fitness? A good reason for staying fit is to be able to take vigorous activity for a reasonable period of time without feeling unduly breathless, strained or exhausted. This has clear benefits for all sorts of activities we regularly engage in ¡ª climbing stairs, running for a bus, carrying heavy objects. Healthy circulation of the blood also helps us think clearly, and acts to ward off illness. Furthermore, cardiovascular fitness obtained through regular aerobic exercise increases the chances of longevity. But long life is only something to be desired we remain in a condition to enjoy it. Staying fit through regular exercise can help enhance the quality of our lives by sharpening our faculties and allowing us to enjoy a wide range of physical and intellectual activities into old age. All these are valid enough reasons for wanting to undertake a balanced regime of physical activity.

A useful first step, then, is to form a clear idea of our aims in taking exercise. Secondly, before embarking on a fitness routine we are customarily encouraged to be aware of our overall physical condition. You may not be suffering from any medical condition or physical deficiency which prevents you exercising. But are you sufficiently in touch with yourself, even when simply sitting or standing, to know that the way you choose to exercise will bring the desired benefits? Can you be sure that it doesn’t pose risks to your health in ways that you have overlooked?

Take breathing, for instance. Efficient breathing is essential to good health and, a key element in the art of swimming. Ineffective breathing can significantly reduce, if not nullify, the positive effects of exercise. How aware are you of how you breathe? Do you know how your pattern of breathing changes during different types of activity? Or take the desire to look good. The single-minded pursuit of muscular strength and a ‘good figure’ can have particularly unwelcome side-effects. Are you sure that straining to extend your muscles is not placing dangerous pressure on your joints and tendons? Are you aware how excessive muscle build-up can reduce your flexibility, lead to rheumatic problems, and cause increasing discomfort as time goes on? Studies have shown that top athletes offer suffer from premature disease of the weight-bearing joints.

One reason why swimming is such a popular fitness pursuit is because it is thought to promote health and well-being without such injurious side-effects. It is recommended by doctors as a remedial activity for chronic conditions, and is considered a suitable form of exercise for all ages and physical types. The advantages of swimming over other forms of exercise are often cited as follows:

1. Water’s properties of buoyancy and density allow vigorous exercise in water with a low risk of injury.

2. Swimming requires the use of the whole body in a balanced and integrated manner.

3. Swimming allows a steady rather than a rapid increase in cardiovascular activity, so is often recommended for people with heart problems.

4. Water has relaxing and therapeutic properties which help make swimming enjoyable as well as beneficial.

The pursuit of fitness aims to address three areas of physical capability: strength, stamina, and suppleness. When charts are provided showing how different types of exercise rate in these respects, swimming usually heads the list. It emerges as the exercise which supplies the best overall balance of conventional fitness requirements, as illustrated by the chart opposite.

What such a chart doesn’t indicate is the level of risk presented by the different forms of exercise, their potential for strain, pain, and injury. In fact, any form of exercise, if taken to extremes, can have detrimental effects on health both in the short term and the long term. If we exercise without sufficient forethought or attention, there’s always some degree of risk. The growing incidence of sports-related injuries has led to increasing recognition of the dangers of highly strenuous types of exercise, such as those involving weights.

Swimming is put in a category of low-impact exercises which are supposedly exempt from such risks. But there are ways in which even low-impact exercise may cause harm, if the effect is to compound pre-existing strains, tension and rigidity. This is rarely given sufficient consideration, and here the Alexander Technique has an important insight to offer. ‘Fitness’ becomes a dubious pursuit if our system is out of balance. Unless we pay attention to their use, virtually any kind of exercise can cause harm or discomfort, and will be of limited benefit. An example is suggested by the fairly common sight of people swimming the breaststroke with their head held permanently out of the water. Whatever benefit they may obtain from the exercise may be more than offset by the strain placed on the spine and the shallow breathing necessitated by the arching of the back.

A similar objection applies to those who snatch their head back to breathe because their swimming rhythm is uncoordinated. Swimming with bad technique can do more harm than good.

It’s sometimes claimed that exercise needs to hurt to have any effect – the ‘no pain, no gain’ syndrome. Not only is this motto suspiciously masochistic, it creates a kind of psychophysical double-bind. To try simultaneously to inflict pain on oneself and to be indifferent to it is bound to be confusing. If we learn to enjoy the sensation of pain by deliberately straining to the point of excess, the body’s natural mechanisms, which normally seek to make us aware of discomfort so that we can take measures to reduce it, are thrown into turmoil. So, by pursuing fitness in this way, we risk setting up a conflict of feelings which leads to an active blocking of our awareness.

Nor do we help ourselves when the exercise environment itself is not conducive to sensitivity. The heavy beat of music in group aerobic sessions, the hubbub of the gym bustling with noise and activity, and a host of other distractions can overload the senses and divert our attention from our immediate experience. Equally distracting is the internal clamor – the desire to look good, to show off, to keep up with others, to conceal one’s figure, to avoid the tedium of exercise by letting the mind wander. The fact that exercise, and especially swimming, often takes place in a public environment makes such distracting thoughts hard to avoid, particularly when they are not recognized as potentially harmful and handled accordingly. One of the most unhelpful internal pressures is the urge to compete in the water, which is so common and widely accepted that it merits more detailed consideration.

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