FROM READERS: What swimming can teach us about health at any age

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:25 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 18, 2013
For Steve Drake, swimming is a time for reflection as well as exercise.

Steve Drake is a health writer focusing on the leading edge of thought, consciousness, spirituality and health. He is also a liaison to the media and to the legislature for Christian Science in Missouri.

Go ahead, take the plunge and swim your way to health and overall well-being. Olympians, M.D.s, fitness trainers and avid swimmers confirm that swimming is not only good for your body but can also improve emotional and spiritual well-being as you stroke through the water.

Swimming provides me with a restorative and liberating feeling. Ever since childhood, I have been drawn to the water like a moth to a flame. I enjoy the discipline of overcoming limitations, both physical and mental, while swimming laps or even doing an open water swim. Author Lynn Sherr elevates swimming to a spiritual experience when she says, “(swimming's) also an inward journey, a time of quiet contemplation. … I find myself at peace, able – and eager – to flex my mind, imagine new possibilities, to work things out.” (Lynn Sherr: "Swim: Why we love the Water")

The idea that swimming is good for you mentally as well as physically is really old news. Author David Thomas, in his book Swimming: Steps to Success quotes William Wilson who in 1883 wrote, “The experienced swimmer, when in the water, may be classed among the happiest of mortals in the happiest of moods, and in the most complete enjoyment of the happiest of exercises.”

It would be fair to ask whether it is actually the physical act of swimming or the mental atmosphere that it creates — that quiet cocoon under the water which allows time for deep thinking or prayer – that produces this kind of happiness and sense of well-being.

Our ability to think is a prized human capability. Consequently, we should not simply “zone out” during a workout; rather, we can think, meditate, or pray with the expectation of positive outcomes. Twice a week, I’m in the pool at the crack of dawn for an hour with fellow masters swimmers which provides necessary quiet time to prepare for my day. While swimming lap after lap, I like to focus my thinking on what really matters in my life. At the top of the list includes health and well-being for me and my family. As I continue on my waterborne, mile-long workout, I also think about solutions for national and world problems like the current U.S. budget deficit impasse or the war in Syria.

Sometimes I feel at my “wits' end” about a particular problem or issue. Being at your “wits' end” is not a 21st century phenomenon. It’s mentioned in Psalm 107 when ancient mariners were on a tempest tossed sea. The storm abated only after the crew earnestly sought Providential assistance. I’m sure there was a collective sigh of relief when a few verses later the Psalmist states that “He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still … he bringeth them unto their desired haven”(Psalm 107:27-29)

FROM READERS: Swimming beneficial for all levels of fitnessWhile Steve Drake does not train with the same intensity as former Olympian Mark Gangloff, he still appreciates the spiritual and physical benefits of swimming. Photo shared by Mark Gangloff.

Mark Gangloff, two time Olympian swimmer and assistant swim coach at MU told me recently that it is important to have a goal for what you want to achieve in your workout. For Mark, the razor-sharp focus to compete in the Olympics began at age 12 after an Olympic swimmer came to speak at his Ohio youth swim club. He broke a national record in breaststroke at age 16. He then went on to compete with Michael Phelps in the Athens and Beijing olympics. For me, my swimming workout will not have the physical intensity that Gangloff exerted in his quest for the Olympics. Unseen to others in the privacy of my swim lane is the goal to focus my quiet time in the pool on becoming more spiritually minded. In her book "Healing: Wilt Thou Be Made Whole?" Jamae van Eck describes this lofty sounding goal, “Spiritually-mindedness implies being in the world but not of it. Those who are spiritually-minded have an instant rapport with one another. They empathize and communicate regardless of language, religion, culture, race, or class. In fact, spirituality is the underlying commonality of all people.”[Healing page 48]

You didn’t have to be a swimmer to be impressed with Diana Nyad, who at 64, became the first person to swim the more than 100 miles from Cuba to Florida. Kathy Smith, a friend and author of "Moving Through Menopause", spoke about the important lifestyle choices Diana made during the years leading up to this remarkable accomplishment.

You don’t just roll out of bed one day and announce to the world that you want to tackle a world record. Smith said, “It’s like a bank account you keep investing in with lifestyle choices, mental habits” that later in life make such a feat possible. I’ve always been inspired by what Mary Baker Eddy said about age, “Except for the error of measuring and limiting all that is good and beautiful, man would enjoy more than threescore years and ten and still maintain his vigor, freshness, and promise.” These words are from a woman who spent the first half of her very long life (twice the average lifespan of a woman at that time) seeking health and the second half sharing the health benefits of Bible-based prayer with the world through her writings and teachings.

We can all learn something about the achievements and ageless possibilities of the superstars in swimming. I will continue to swim with the goal for a rigorous workout balanced with the quiet time to cultivate the spiritual qualities as espoused by Lynn Sherr. Swimming and other individual sports can increase your physical and mental well-being. If swimming isn’t your thing, find another recreational activity that allows for contemplative time or just time during the day that gives you moments to stretch your mental endurance, to meditate or pray. That’s really the key to improving your overall health and longevity.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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