Michael Phelps’ far-reaching influences

Michael Phelps’ achievements are mind-blowing; but, more than that, we could all learn a lesson from him and improve our health. He makes the sport of swimming look easy and fun; and, in fact, it is. We may not be able to fly through the water like him but with a good swimming routine we can improve our health and be a winner at life.

This week I took my granddaughter, Allison, to the “aquatic center.” (A fancy name for the local public pool; but it is located in an “uppity” neighborhood, so, what do you expect?) I enjoy taking her because it gives me an excuse to go on the water slides without smirking looks and I enjoy her company.

As we were heading toward the slides I passed a mother and son at the deep end of the pool and overhead her talking with her son about swimming lessons. She said, “That is how Michael Phelps started.” I thought this was probably one of many conversations around the world right now about taking swim lessons or getting back into the pool for those who already know how to swim. I thought how great it is that his wonderful achievements can have this affect on people.

Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time

Michael Phelps is not only the greatest swimmer of all times but the greatest athlete of the Olympic Games. His record of 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall for his Olympic career is one that most likely won’t be broken for a very long time. He has won a total of 67 medals in major international competition including 55 gold, 9 silver, and 3 bronze in the Olympics, the World, and Pan Pacific Championships.

However, I learned something about Phelps while researching this piece that I find even more impressive. He is using his celebrity status and own money to establish his own foundation to focus on the growing sport of swimming and promoting healthier lifestyles for kids. He has established the Michael Phelps Swim School and KidsHealth.Org organization to develop the “im” program for Boys and Girls Club members. The “im” program teaches children the importance of being active and healthy, with a focus on the sport of swimming. It also promotes the value of planning and goal setting.

Another Olympian using his influence to promote swimming

Another Olympic swimmer using his status to promote swimming is Cullen Jones. Jones is one of the first African-Americans to excel in the sport and he is urging more blacks to learn to swim. Traditionally, many African-Americans have not had the opportunity to learn to swim and are afraid of the water and this attitude has been passed down through the generations. Jones learned to swim after nearly drowning himself and he wants all to learn to swim to cut down on the drowning statistics.

Fortunately I have never known that fear of water as my parents had me in the pool before I could walk. I learned very early in life that the body will float and with adding a little kicking and arm movement you will swim.  Don’t panic—trust the water and you will swim. Every summer I took the Red Cross swim lessons progressing through all the classes until I earned my life saving certificate.

Prevention is the best policy

I swim a couple of times a week at the Y thanks to my AARP insurance that offers Silver Sneakers that pays for a gym membership. (Prevention is the best policy.) Swimming is probably the best exercise you can do. It is a good aerobic activity benefiting the cardio-vascular system without overstraining or harsh impact that can damage the joints and muscular-skeletal system. The Arthritis Foundation suggests swimming to stretch muscles, strengthen muscles, and provide a good aerobic workout. They have even found that swimming can improve the use of affected joints and decrease pain for osteoarthritis victims.

10 benefits of swimming                               

1.    The ability to do more with less—swimming is an aerobic exercise that gives you the ability to work your body without impact to the skeletal system. The Arthritis Foundation recommends exercises that stretch the muscles, strengthen muscles, and provide an aerobic workout. A few laps in the pool combine all three.

2.    Increased muscle tone and strength—a runner is only moving through air but a swimmer is propelling himself through water that is 12 times as dense as air. Every kick and arm stroke becomes a resistance exercise and resistance exercises are the best way to build muscle tone and strength. In addition, swimming also improves bone strength, especially in post-menopausal women.

3.    Improved flexibility—unlike exercise machines that isolate one body part at a time, swimming puts the body through a broad range of motion that helps joints and ligaments stay loose and flexible. The arms move in circles, hips are engaged as the legs kick and the head and spine twist from side to side; you also get a good stretch from head to toe.

4.    A healthier heart—in addition to toning the muscles like the pectorals, triceps and quads, swimming also helps improve the most important muscle of the body—the heart. Swimming is an aerobic exercise that makes the heart more efficient and increases blood flow throughout the body. This, in turn, helps combat the body’s inflammatory response. The American Heart Association reports that just 30 minutes of exercise per day, such as swimming, can reduce coronary heart disease in women by 30 to 40 percent. In addition, regular aerobic exercise can reduce blood pressure.

5.    Weight control—swimming is recognized as one of the biggest calorie burners and great for keeping weight under control. It is estimated that for every 10 minutes of swimming the breast stroke burns 60 calories, the backstroke 80, the freestyle 100, and the butterfly 150 calories.

6.    Improved asthma symptoms—swimming provides the opportunity to workout in a moist atmosphere which can reduce exercise-induced asthma symptoms. Studies have shown that swimming can actually improve the overall condition. In addition, the health benefits were still apparent a year after the swimming program had ended. Even those without asthma can benefit by increasing lung volume and learning proper breathing techniques.

7.    Improved cholesterol—swimming helps improve the ratio of good and bad cholesterol. For every 1 percent increase in HDL cholesterol, the risk of dying from heart disease drops by 3.5 percent. Also, aerobic exercises like swimming can keep your endothelium in good shape—that is a thin layer of cells that lines the arteries and tends to lose flexibility as we age. One study of people in their 60’s found that aerobic exercise causes the arteries to expand and contract and keeps us fit. Of those participating in the study it was found that their endothelium function equaled that of those 30 and 40 years younger.

8.    Lower risk of diabetes—aerobic exercise is one of the most powerful ways of warding off diabetes. If you already have type 1 diabetes, aerobic benefits of swimming can be particularly helpful as it can increase insulin sensitivity.

9.    Lower stress, higher spirits, and a better brain—swimming releases the “feel-good” chemicals know as endorphins. These chemicals produce what many call a “runner’s high.” Swimming also evokes the relaxation response the same way yoga works on the body by the constant stretching and relaxing of the muscles combined with a deep rhythmic breathing. Swimming also is a meditative exercise with the sound of your own breathing and the splash of the water acting as a mantra that helps drown out all other distractions. It has also been found that swimming can actually change the brain for the better through a process known as hippocampal neurogenesis, in which the brain replaces cells lost through stress.

10.You just might live longer—the University of South Carolina followed 40,547 men aged 20 to 90 for 32 years and discovered that those who swam had a 50 percent lower death rate than runners, walkers or men who got no exercise. It improves the cardiorespiratory fitness of the body which refers to healthy functioning of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Cardiorespiratory fitness involves major muscles of the body moving rhythmically for a continuous time. Activities that contribute to cardiorespiratory fitness include walking, bicycling, running, and especially swimming.

You don’t have to be an Olympian to reap the benefits of swimming

Moderate swimming for just 30 minutes to an hour at least twice a week can effectively replenish the body with improved blood circulation which then facilitates the transportation of nutrients and oxygen to cells, muscles and organs. The ability to eliminate harmful carbon dioxide and similar toxins is accommodated by swimming’s cardiorespiratory benefits. This type of physical activity is critical to the lymphatic system, which is directly associated with the immune system. Distribution of healthy white blood cells through the body by the lymphatic system is facilitated by regular swimming sessions.

So, for an active and better life meet me at the pool at least twice a week. I will give you a gold medal for trying.