Esther Williams, the aquatic champion and glamorous MGM star of the 1940s and 1950s, said it best: “Swimming is the only thing you can do from your first bath to your last without hurting yourself. When you’re in the water, you’re weightless and ageless.”
Let’s see, three of our biggest hang-ups about getting older are injuries, spare tires and, um, getting older. And swimming holds them all at bay? You bet. It is the only athletic activity that keeps your knees, ankles, elbows and wrists free from pounding. The only activity that turns the benefits of buoyancy into a dreamy glide through what feels like zero gravity. The sole aerobic sport that lets you just keep, well, swimming, even as you focus more on Medicare than the Mommy wars. Still not convinced? Consider this: Swimming exercises every major muscle group in the body, and it's the longest stretch short of the rack.
There is even some evidence that the fountain of youth may contain chlorinated water — that swimming helps slow down the aging process. Researchers at Indiana University at Bloomington have been studying U.S. Masters Swimming members — rigorous, dedicated swimmers who work out in the water routinely. “We’ve found that the arteries of older USMS members tend to be more elastic than those of younger non-swimmers, and that the muscle mass of older Masters Swimmers is equivalent to persons 15 years younger," says Dr. Joel Stager, associate director of Indiana’s Department of Kinesiology and director of its Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming. Masters Swimmers, he found, also have lower average heart rates than more sedentary people in the same age group.
Stager is also a principal investigator for an ambitious study of the brain activity of regular swimmers, conducted in conjunction with Indiana's Brain Science Lab. Among the team's findings so far: Regular swimmers appear to have greater cell density and stronger “connectedness” between neurons in the cerebellum, which could mean protection from age-related complications in gait and balance that can lead to falls. And these swimmers show very little decline in nerve conduction velocity, or NCV — the speed with which your brain tells your muscles what to do. The NCV rate in 80-year-old swimmers was similar to that of 50-year-olds in the general population. Smaller age-related declines have also been found in Masters Swimmers’ working memory capacity, or the capacity to maintain goal-relevant information in mind, which is reflected, among other things, in superior reaction time in making decisions.
Swimming to Better Brain and Heart Health
I know all this because I took part in Stager’s study, as a volunteer guinea fish researching my book, SWIM: Why We Love the Water (Public Affairs, 2012). And my results bear out the general findings: My brain and cardio system tested better than those of most people my age. (I started swimming laps when I was almost 40, and now I'm pushing 70.) I’ve got anecdotal evidence, too: My personal trainer at my gym insists that swimming drills have changed my body for the better, and improved everything from my posture to my skin tone. One caveat: Swimming burns fat, and can definitely smooth out the bumps, but it will not make you lose weight. You may trim down the pounds at first, but efficient swimming means using less energy, so the better you get the less you’ll lose. This is not worth worrying about: You'll be replacing fat with muscle mass, which weighs more but indicates a greater degree of fitness — and probably happiness, too.
“If I go in like a cranky sea lion, I come out like a smiling dolphin,” endurance swimmer Carol Sing said in 1999, after she became the then-oldest woman (at 57) to swim the English Channel. That was two years after she became the oldest woman to cross California’s Catalina Channel. Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad is still planning to conquer the Cuba-to-Key West channel — at a superathletic 61. And syndicated health columnist Judy Foreman, who did her first flip turn at 59, regularly competes in USMS races. Swimming is “the only place I feel valued for being old,” she says. One of her fondest memories from the last Nationals meet, she says, was when “everybody, the whole 1,800 of us, stood and cheered for a 90-year-old guy who finished his race!”
Go on a Grand Aquatic Adventure
One more testimonial, from me: Last summer, I challenged myself with a big swim — something that would both stretch my body and give my spirit a grand adventure. I signed up for a race across the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles), the iconic waterway in western Turkey that separates Europe from Asia. The mythological Leander had done it in antiquity, to be with his paramour, Hero. The Romantic poet Lord Byron did it in 1810, to relive the glory of the Greeks. And now I — a lazy lap swimmer with no training whatsoever — was going to try, to explore the limits of my very 21st-century self. But Hellespont waters can be rough, with treacherous currents. Not to mention stinging jellyfish. The distance — about four miles — was way beyond what I’d ever done. And oh, yes: Leander was probably a teen during his swims; Byron was 22. I was a grandmother in her 60s. Was I nuts?
No, I was determined. I joined USMS and trained, hard, in indoor pools. I pushed myself into the ocean and the bay and swam farther and longer than I’d ever thought possible. And on Aug. 30, 2011, on a perfect sunny day when Poseidon smiled on the sea and gave us smooth, warm water with no angry critters, I swam the Hellespont! I even won my age group and got a medal. I emerged from the regal blue water with a proud grin, lifting my arms, Olympic-style, in triumph. And I’ve got a T-shirt to prove it: Leander, Lord Byron and Me, it reads. Try prying that off my back.
Better yet, try swimming yourself. It's magical. It can transform your body, calm your soul, and turn the transition into the next decade into a thrilling new challenge. It can also save your life.