Swimming is a romance. It’s a relationship between one person and the water; between stillness and tranquillity; between life and death. It’s where we come from and when you lie back and float amongst the ripples you can feel it. There’s an unspoken connection to the waves, a connection to the earth that you feel nowhere else. In the water, you feel alive.
In Bonnie Tsui’s 2020 bestseller Why We Swim, the author approaches the human love of swimming through an evolutionary stance. Humans are one of the only mammals on the planet that don’t have the instinctive ability to swim. Although our evolutionary home was the water, over millennia, we have lost these natural instincts.
However, Tsui relays how there are still miracle occurrences of the water saving people’s lives. One of the most captivating stories is the phenomenal survival of Icelandic fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþórsson. After his fishing boat capsized in 1984, Friðþórsson swam six hours in freezing water to reach land. When he finally got to the hospital, doctors were almost unable to discern his heartbeat, but he showed no signs of hypothermia.
Swimming is the one lifesaving skill that can keep you out of—if you’ll excuse the pun—deep-water. However, the benefits extend far beyond lifesaving.
The idea of being alone with your own thoughts can be daunting, but swimming gives you a whole new sense of what being alone is. There is something meditative about the state of a ‘blue mind’, at one with your natural surroundings and forced to either face your problems or completely close your mind.
Tsui’s book is full of incredible stories about incredible people and how swimming changed them. One of her muses is marathon swimmer Kim Chambers. Chambers was diagnosed with acute compartment syndrome after an accident and took up swimming to improve her strength. Not only did she fall in love with the water, but she also became the first woman to swim from Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Swimming was the thing that healed her body and her mind. Chambers’ achievements are great, but her relationship with the water is greater.
But, a ‘blue mind’ isn’t just a catchy phrase that makes you dream of the waves rolling around you. It’s also an opening for more specific mental and physical health benefits.
The most obvious benefit of swimming comes through cardiovascular fitness that improves your heart rate and oxygen consumption. As swimming uses all the muscles in the body, a standard 30-minute swim has the same effect as 45 minutes of activity on land.
Water also supports 90% of the body’s weight, meaning that it is adaptable for all body types and ages. A non-contact and non-impact exercise, the lack of pressure can aid joints and muscles in recovery after injury due to a lower chance of muscle inflammation.
A regular 30-minute swim can release stress and tension in the body and mind. When stressed or anxious, your breathing rate increases and swimming can help moderate and regulate your breathing, automatically calming your mind and body and reducing stress.
It’s also super refreshing. If you’ve ever been in cold water, you know the jolt of surprise that comes alongside it. A short swim in fresh, cold water can relax your mind and elevate your senses, every neurone awake and reacting. Not just a shock factor, cold water can boost your immune system, increasing your white blood cell count when reacting to the changing conditions. Improving circulation, your blood flows to the surface to keep you warm, flushing veins and capillaries.
Lastly, endorphins are your best friend. I know you hear it in every article about exercise, but it’s true. Swimming is especially good at releasing endorphins and giving you that happiness boost that you crave.
A competitive and self-classed swimmer my whole life, I crave the water. I crave the feeling of being submerged in my own thoughts, of becoming one with the water and my mind. Swimming isn’t just a sport to me, it’s a necessity. But I guess you’ll just have to go and find out for yourself.
Why We Swim is available from all good booksellers.
Words by Megan Armitage
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
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