Why Learn to Swim

If you never learned as a kid, you have plenty of reasons to learn now

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Did you have a traumatic experience the first time you tried swimming, such as a near drowning or an adult tossing you into a lake?

For some people, this results in an abiding fear of water or at least a lack of interest in learning to swim.

But if you still don’t swim, learning how is not only possible but advisable.

“If you’re ever by the water and something happens, it can save your life,” said Lisa Birnbaum, a certified personal trainer in private practice in Pittsford. “It’s always beneficial to know in case there’s an accident. It’s really for safety.”

Whether to save your life or that of a grandchild’s or other family member, learning to swim well can be lifesaving.

Swimming can also prove life enhancing. Birnbaum views swimming as a full-body exercise that engages all the muscle groups.

“You can gain more flexibility in the water that you might not be able to do otherwise,” Birnbaum noted. “And if you’re recovering from an injury or surgery, water exercise is a low-impact way to move your body and heal, once you’re cleared to exercise again.”

Many fitness endeavors can become more challenging as arthritis, old injuries and overall stiffness sets in with aging.

“Swimming is low-stress without the same stress of running or jogging,” Birnbaum said. “It can help with inflammation. I feel like a lot of younger people are getting arthritis as we’ve been training to be more active. Arthritis is something we should be thinking about.”

The water’s warmth and buoyancy ease joint movement and lowers the load on joints.

“As we age, our body needs change,” said Elizabeth Hornak, who leads instruction for the adult learn to swim program at JCC Rochester. “Our muscles contract, so we want to lengthen and strengthen them to navigate the aging process. Any water fitness activity can be really beneficial.”

She also likes the mental health benefits swimming offers, as people become friends with fellow swimmers.

Overall, swimming can become a mindful activity. During a lesson, swimmers lay aside their stressors to focus on that they’re doing in the moment, such as their movement in the water, arm and leg placement, and breathing.

Brian Wilcox, aquatics director at Webster Aquatic Center, has noticed that many of the pool clientele is “retirement age” during the water fitness classes and open swim times.

“We have one who’s 94 in one of the classes,” Wilcox said. “She’s super active. Swimming gets people off the couch. If they have trouble walking on land, they can do it in the pool. They can walk in the shallow end. We also have water belts — a ‘floatie’ for adults — so they can aqua jog with no impact.”

It may seem like it’s too late to learn. However, one of his swimming lesson participants was 86.

“Learning to swim was on her bucket list,” he recalled. “She almost drowned as a child, which made her fearful of learning before.”