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Getting Into the Swim of Things


When I was in my early teens, I was a competitive swimmer. I swam for a club in White Rock, BC, and trained in a rectangle of wharves at the end of the pier under the watchful eye of our coach, Merle McGrath.

When I was in my early teens, I was a competitive swimmer. I swam for a club in White Rock, BC, and trained in a rectangle of wharves at the end of the pier under the watchful eye of our coach, Merle McGrath.

We would swim countless hours per day. One day I had the misfortune of mentioning that I couldn’t swim that day because I had a stiff neck. “Get in the tank, ya sissy,” roared coach McGrath. “There’s nothing like an hour of Australian crawl to cure a stiff neck.”

It turned out that coach McGrath was on to something. My stiff neck healed, and recent research now points to the therapeutic effect swimming has on athletic injuries.

Staying Afloat

There is magic in the healing effect of water. Our bodies are 60 percent water, and we developed as fetuses in a watery environment. In the water we weigh about one-tenth of our land weight. The buoyancy effect of water does not have the jarring effect land-based training has on our joints. Swimming allows us to concentrate on muscular strength and flexibility. Because of this, swimming is an excellent way to come back from a sports injury, recover from surgery, or keep our fitness up while waiting to get back to a weight-bearing sport like running.

Swimming improves our all-round fitness. It simultaneously boosts strength, stamina, and suppleness. It has all the cardiovascular benefits of running coupled with the strength-building effects of weight training. This comes from the resistance water offers as you propel yourself forward. The use of different strokes promotes balance and coordination. Swimming uses all the major muscle groups, and is a demanding aerobic exercise that helps to keep your heart and lungs healthy. It also helps to keep your joints flexible, especially in the neck, shoulders, hips, and groin, as your limbs and body move through the water.

You can increase the intensity of physical activity by swimming faster or changing strokes. This increases the caloric output–a vital component of weight management.

Working Those Muscles

Swimming works all the major muscle groups–especially if you use a variety of strokes including the backstroke, breast stroke, and the front crawl or freestyle. Propulsion uses the abdominals, biceps and triceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi and other muscles of the back, gluteals, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Since we don’t have gills, we have to coordinate muscles while breathing during swimming–especially with the front crawl or butterfly stroke.

Performing these strokes results in better coordination and balance, consequently helping to reduce injuries in sports practised on land.

Rehab Benefits

Research shows swimming is a successful method of rehabilitation for joint injuries, back and neck injuries, post surgery recovery, and amputations. Swimming is also recommended for pregnant women to improve overall strength for an easier delivery and recovery period afterwards. It also benefits asthmatics, because the humidity of the air at the water’s surface is relatively high, permitting easier breathing. Swimming is not recommended for recovery from wounds, as there may be risk of transmitting or contracting infections.


Because swimming is not a weight-bearing exercise, there is little bone density improvement. People with osteoporosis need to incorporate weight lifting into their workouts. I spoke with someone who used the pool for therapy for a back injury, “It was great while I was in the water,” she said. “The problem was getting out. I used to crawl to the changing room.”

For people with sensitivity to pool chemicals, goggles can be helpful. It’s a great excuse to buy those cool, plastic mirrored ones. I’m sure even coach McGrath would have approved of those.



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Leah PayneLeah Payne