There are so many great things about swimming as a sport, hobby, and activity that go beyond just improving your physical fitness.
When people talk about swimming, most people think of either splashing in the pool under the hot summer sun to cool off, or competitive swimming. Most people don’t envision themselves getting into the pool to lap swim recreationally as exercise.
When you say “I need to work out”, you’re probably referring to running, going to the gym, or lifting weights. These are probably the most common forms of exercise in our day and age. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great and I highly encourage any activity that you enjoy doing where you can do it sustainably, consistently, and without injury.
Although swimming is great for exercise, there is another less obvious benefit to swimming.
Let’s talk about range of motion. Most people operate in a limited range of motion for the majority of their daily activities. Think about it. For work, you’re probably on a computer or performing manual tasks at about 45 to 90 degrees in front of you (0 degree is when your hands are down beside you). Few professions require you to work with your arms overhead for a prolonged period of time, though there are some.
Although not using your full range of joint mobility doesn’t seem like an obvious problem in your youth, it becomes problematic as you age. The notion, “use it or lose it”, applies very much to the range of motion in our joints.
Think of your joints as a door hinge. Say you only open your door half way every single time you use it. Over time, the hinge becomes nice and loose and the door opens easily up to about halfway. Now, if you tried opening it all the way, it may feel a bit stiffer as you push to open the door all the way.
This concept is similar to your joints. When you are always operating from 0 to 90 degrees of shoulder flexion, and rarely above 90 degrees, your shoulders may begin to feel stiff over time. That’s because we have something called synovial fluid in our joints, and this fluid acts as a lubricant. Kind of like WD-40 to a squeaky door. When you perform full ranges of motion, you allow the synovial fluid to lubricate all around the joint to keep it healthy.
Additionally, your muscles have varying elasticity. If you are active, you’re likely contracting and lengthening your muscles when you exercise and stretch. However, you’ll notice when you become sedentary, your body starts to stiffen up, too. That’s because the length of your muscles conforms to the activities you do daily. Your muscles will lengthen just enough for you to perform your daily activities. That means if you work at a desk, go to the gym to bench press, come home and do chores, you’re limiting all of your activities to what’s directly in front of you. Now if you need to reach for something overhead or behind you, you’re going to feel a “good stretch” because the muscles in your shoulders, chest, and back aren’t used to being lengthened that way.
The same goes for your lower body. Most activities, e.g. sitting, running, standing, don’t require you to go into deep hip flexion. So when people squat, they feel “stiff” or experience joint pain going into those end ranges.
With swimming, you’re required to utilize a wider range of motion for all of your major joints. To perform different strokes and turns, your shoulders, hips, and knees move into end ranges of flexion and extension, along with some abduction, adduction, external and internal rotation. Since you’re positioned horizontally in the water, as opposed to being vertical for land activities, you spend the duration of the activity in an overhead reach position.
For those that rarely perform activities that require you to go into end ranges of motion, swimming is a great activity for you. People often mistaken swimmers as having extraordinary flexibility. Though there may be some truth to that, it’s also likely that swimmers utilize their joints’ full range of motion available to them.
As swimmers consistently utilize full ranges of motion, they are able to maintain that joint mobility and benefit from it throughout their adulthood. Thus, making it easier to transition into other stages of life, in addition to staying active into their geriatric years.
When it comes to improving joint mobility, motion truly is lotion. The longer you use the range of motion available to you, the longer you’ll maintain your joint mobility with minimal effort as you age.
Happy swimming and make sure to subscribe!