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Swimming for good health: Just go with the flow

A midshipman participates in the 500-yard swim portion of a physical screening test as part of the explosive ordnance disposal summer cruise at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Atherton) A midshipman participates in the 500-yard swim portion of a physical screening test as part of the explosive ordnance disposal summer cruise at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Atherton)

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Physical activity offers many health benefits including protection against cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.  However, some high-impact aerobic activities such as running may not be suitable for everyone as the body ages.

Swimming is one aerobic activity that involves continuous and rhythmic movement that engages large muscle groups without the jarring impact to the joints. In other words, it’s a gentler alternative exercise.

“Running can have a shelf life, but swimming can be a lifelong endeavor,” said Air Force Capt. Geoff McLeod, a doctor of osteopathic medicine with a certificate of added qualification in sports medicine.

“You don’t necessarily have to give up swimming as you get older,” he said. “It provides benefits whether you’re 4 years old or in the geriatric population. I don’t think people realize all the benefits swimming provides, in terms of overall good health.”

McLeod is a fan of swimming personally as well as professionally. The sports and family medicine physician at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, started swimming when he was 6. He swam competitively through college at James Madison University in Virginia, competing in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, 100-meter butterfly, and 200-meter individual medley.

After graduation, McLeod coached a club team for about four years before beginning his military career. Although he gave up swimming competitively, he still hops in the pool two or three times a week to get in a good workout.

“Swimming engages every single muscle group in the entire body,” he said. “And unlike running, it doesn’t put pressure on your joints. So it provides an outlet to become physically fit or to recondition. If you experience pain when walking or running because of arthritis or an injury, you can swim without hurting.”

The health benefits of swimming aren’t just physical, McLeod said, noting the mind-calming effects of moving through the water with none of the interruptions or distractions often encountered by runners and gym-goers.

“Swimming’s the type of exercise you can kind of get lost in,” agreed Air Force 2nd Lt. Taylor Hodges. “For me, it’s is a form of meditation.”

Hodges, a medical student at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, started swimming when she was 8. She said competitive swimming helped her gain confidence and learn time-management skills while juggling volunteer service as an EMT and a challenging premed course curriculum in Allegany, New York.

“I’d planned to take a year off from swimming and try other exercises, like bicycling and running,” Hodges said. “But then I realized how much I missed it.”

Hodges, who graduated in 2017, now swims two or three times a week at the pool on the USU-Walter Reed National Military Medical Center campus and also at a nearby civilian swim and fitness center. She tries to include all four strokes – backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and butterfly – in her 30- to 60-minute routine, as well as kicking and underwater drills. Hodges completes about 2,000 yards each workout. That translates to 1.2 miles in a 25-yard pool, or 80 pool lengths (wall to wall).

“It’s easier to stay motivated when you’re part of a team, because you have a coach and fellow swimmers encouraging you,” Hodges said. “I’m hoping to join a recreational team when med school becomes – not easier, but more manageable.”

The Navy and Marine Corps both require members to be able to swim, but the Army and Air Force don’t unless a military occupation or specialty requires that skill. For military family members, many Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs offer swim lessons year-round. McLeod said it’s never too late to learn, or to brush up on skills acquired in younger years.

“Anybody can pick up swimming as an adult,” he said. “And muscle memory will kick in for those who haven’t been in the pool for a while. You may not have the same control as you once did, but as you train, it’ll get easier. Good technique is just drill work and understanding how to move your arms and legs.”

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