When it comes down to it, we all come from water. Our bodies are made up of about 65% water, and we evolved from creatures that originally lived in water. From single cells swimming with the current to swift predators swimming in for the kill, our distant ancestors got their start in the oceans. Eventually, some brave fish took to the tide pools, then ventured onto land. Her descendants evolved into countless land animals. Some wandered into the trees—and eventually into high rises—while others chose to return to mother ocean.
These water-dwellers are among our favorite creatures. Playful otters, cute seals, absurd sea lions, comical walruses, intelligent porpoises, sociable Orcas—all of these and more represent uniquely adapted mammals whose ancestors decided life in the water is better than life on the land. It’s hard to observe these creatures in action without envying their effortless grace and speed in the water.
Of course, anyone who’s ever seen Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps in action knows humans are also capable of grace and power in the water. But humans aren’t born to it. They must learn. It takes effort. Apart from the inherent fun of frolicking in the water, what’s the point of learning to swim, you may ask. Is it really worth the effort? Absolutely.
A strong swimmer can burn 400-700 calories or more per hour while swimming laps, all while engaging virtually every major muscle group in the body, and without placing undue stress on any particular muscle or joint. Crucially, this includes the core abdominal muscles. Whether you’re aware of it or not, the abdominal muscles come into play with every stroke when you swim laps.
Anyone Can Swim
With proper instruction and encouragement, even adults who think they are afraid of the water can learn to relax in open water and swim. Swimming is a remarkably beneficial and easy-on-the-joints form of exercise. It incorporates elements of aerobic and resistance exercise. It engenders breath control, as experienced and relaxed swimmers learn to slow their breathing and coordinate each breath with their strokes.
The mammalian diving reflex is a hardwired response that means your heart rate slows whenever your face is in water. It’s a survival reflex, meant to help you survive being dunked in water. But swimmers can benefit from this effect by becoming comfortable having their face submerged much of the time and embracing the eventual sense of calm that owes, in part, to this ancient physiological wiring. A good swimmer makes swimming look relatively effortless. And to the long-distance swimmer, it often feels that way.
But don’t be fooled. Humans are poorly designed for slicing effortlessly through the water. Water has a high drag coefficient, so gliding through water takes considerable effort. Michael Phelps aside, we are poorly designed by evolution for streamlined passage through water.
Learning to swim not only gives you confidence around water, it is also a form of drown-proofing. Lessons for children can be viewed as a twofer; they get to learn a sport that will serve them well for a lifetime, and you get the peace of mind that comes from knowing they won’t drown from panicking in open water.
Don’t Underestimate the Benefits
Any activity that gets you off the sofa and moving is considered good. But swimming is evidently special. A recent study in the British Journal of Medicine reported that long-term swimmers, but not cyclers, runners, or football (soccer) players, experienced a significant decrease in the risk of all-cause mortality. That means swimmers, but not other types of athletes, are less likely to die from causes that include heart disease and cancer. This suggests there’s something especially beneficial about swimming for exercise. The study examined data collected from more than 80,000 Brits.
Other scientific studies have investigated the benefits of swimming for people with arthritis, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, and other specific conditions. Other research suggests dedication to lap swimming results in better body weight control. Regardless of why you do it, rest assured that swimming is great for the mind and body—and it’s great fun.
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