While plenty of people here are devoted to daily swims, I meet many who haven’t gone in the water for years. They’re too busy. They think it’s a vacation thing, or for kids. If you’re one of those people, I hope you will regain your “blue mind.” Now is the time to jump — or gently glide — into a pond or the sea.
Can you tell I’ve been reading Wallace J. Nichols’s best-selling book, Blue Mind? Take a deep breath for its full title, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Well, I’ve certainly seen the way getting into the water can create a sense of mental well-being.
Let’s look first at the physical reality of being in the water. Swimming, or any water exercise, creates less stress on your joints than exercising on land. Buoyancy reduces weight bearing on your legs and spine if you’re standing and eliminates that pressure entirely if you’re floating. For people with arthritis, chronic back pain, or limited mobility, being in the water is a chance to move freely, without pain.
Water’s buoyant force can aid any upward movement. As you stand in chest-deep water, raise your arms — they easily float up. Try lifting one leg forward, sideways, or backwards, or bend your knee. If these movements are painful when lifting against gravity, performing them in water will be easier and more comfortable.
At the same time, any downward motion will be resisted by the same force, which will help to strengthen the working muscles. Move your arms back to your sides or bring your leg toward the bottom and you’ll feel that.
There is also resistance to your body’s forward motion in the water. The faster you move, the more it works to stop you. Try it out by walking through waist-deep water. If that’s easy, try running. You can let your feet touch down or run in deeper water for a bigger challenge. Walking or running through water can provide an excellent workout with little or no impact on your legs; that’s why it is often used for rehabbing injuries.
The force of the water pressing against your body applies gentle compression to your muscles, joints, and blood vessels, which can reduce swelling. Then there’s the fact that being immersed provides cooling relief from heat and humidity.
Aside from all the physical benefits, there is a shift in mood as soon as you take the plunge. I took some friends swimming last week. When we got in, before we even started moving, one of them said, “This is the best I’ve felt in months.” I have seen my son go from surly to smiling as he catches the first wave on his boogie board.
Why does this happen? Is it biochemistry? Nichols’s book explores those questions. Although the studies he cites are preliminary, they describe shifts in the release of neurotransmitters that can lead to decreased blood pressure and heart rate, as well as reduced depression and anxiety.
Is it the focus and the breathing? Swimmers describe the way attention to technique and regulation of breathing can create a meditative state. But you don’t have to be an expert at the crawl or the butterfly to reap the benefits. Any movement in or on the water can create that “blue mind” feeling — boogie boarding, paddle boarding, sailing, surfing, kayaking, and canoeing.
If you allow it to, water might make way for a philosophical shift, even. I asked a friend why she enjoyed swimming. “Being in the ocean or the bay,” she said, “with the giant blue sky overhead, gives me the feeling of being part of something infinite, which makes my worries seem insignificant.”
Let’s go for a swim.
If you have questions about your ability to exercise, consult your health care provider before starting a new routine.