I was back in the pool today. First time in years. I have re-joined a local swim club that has outdoor lap pools for the hearty and fit, a heated indoor pool for those of us with arthritis, and an expansive hot tub that is outside, but heated to a reasonable simmer suitable for soaking tired and achy muscles.
This was a bit of a battle between my body/mind. My mind was in its typical critical space, comparing my body to others and taking inventory of all my deficits. My body, once in the water, rejoiced like a trapped dolphin once freed to move effortlessly. My hips, knees, and ankles, usually numbed by a combination of pressure from the pull of gravity and push of my excess weight, suddenly were out on parole and able to explore a range of motion denied on land.
I was cautions at first. At least my mind was. It let forth a steady stream of coaching tips: “Walk slowly and carefully so you don’t slip. Don’t get too ambitious. This is your first time back in the water. Say hello to the others in the pool, but don’t be too intrusive. Remember to breathe. If it hurts, that is O.K., just be gentle.”
My body responded with: “Whoo-hoo! BABY! FREE AT LAST! FREE AT LAST!, THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, I AM FREE AT LAST!. I was mindful that these ecstatic murmurings were under water, and not likely to be heard by any of the other swimmers in the pool with me, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of my exuberance and joy.
As I looked around the pool, I found myself among more women than men. Mostly women who weighed as much as I and who were as old or older. Much like the hot springs monkeys in Nagano, Japan, we were all seeking relief and taking the waters. There was not a lot of conversation, but I was new to the group.
Pool etiquette is interesting, especially for the uninitiated. We are territorial beings. Finding “my” spot in the pool required paying attention to what the others were doing and where. Exercises designed to rehab hips and knees that had undergone replacement surgery were in the majority. There was little aerobic activity. Conversations were limited to brief “hello’s” and “Good Morning!”. All of us were intent on letting the healing properties of the water work magic before we became land mammals once more.
We are the modern day legatees of those who found healing in hot springs, attended community baths and bathing for cleansing and connecting, and noticed the benefits of water in rejuvenating body, mind, and spirit. Archaeologists and anthropologists have found evidence of humans using waters to heal and cure in every culture. Perhaps it is further evidence of our evolution from water to land.
I have always loved the water. From my earliest days of learning to swim at the 19th Century Women’s Club pool, where I couldn’t touch the bottom and was scared to go into the deep end, to skinny dipping at night in glorious Lake George in upstate New York, I have found excitement, joy, exercise, strength, endurance, and delight. At one time I was a water safety instructor for the American Red Cross. I met my husband through water activities, and we shared a love of swimming and all water-related recreation. I learned to meditate by swimming laps late at night in a pool lit only with underwater lights.
Returning to this familiar environment was a bit of a shock, though. My limbs have lost their strength and flexibility; my lungs no longer push the air out forcefully, stroke after stroke. What I am admitting here is that I am seriously out of shape. But the water doesn’t care. It holds the promise of getting me back to healthy and pain-free movement. As long as I show up, it will provide buoyancy, resistance, and challenge. As long as I quiet my mind and remember that my body delights in playing in this blissful environment, I will grow in strength, stamina, and flexibility.
I am both amazed and delighted that so many older adults are finding their way into pools across the country. All forms of movement can be found in YMCA pools, private clubs, and Wellness programs offered by hospitals. Water aerobics, water yoga, water exercise, water massage, and water rehabilitation are among preferred forms of exercise for many aging adults. I recently read an article by a physical therapist encouraging people needing to have hip and knee replacement surgery to start doing “pre-hab” in the water BEFORE the surgery to optimize muscles and tendons and get the body ready for the new parts that will replace the old, worn out joints.
I also know I am in the throes of my exercise honeymoon. I do not yet require U.N. negotiating teams to get me out of bed and into the pool. I am committed to restoring myself for now. And there will come a time when the seduction of staying in bed may override the disciplined me, and I might slip back into bad habits. By writing this, however, I am committing to changing for the better and establishing a routine that will keep me healthy now and into my elderhood.
FIVE PILLARS OF AGING
Sometimes the barriers to getting up and moving around aren’t desire or intention. Maybe you don’t have a safe place to exercise, or extra money to join a gym or pool. These are legitimate issues. Finding ways to exercise in your own home requires being creative, but it can be done. Singing and dancing all by yourself in the comfort of your “home” are also wonderful ways to keep your body and soul moving.
If it’s been a while since you moved at all, then start slowly and build up gradually. Set small goals so that you feel good about accomplishing them. Seek information online or from physical therapists for possible routines. Starting something is hard, I will admit. Keeping up an exercise program can seem daunting. So don’t think about it that way. Change your thoughts and change your behavior. Then just keep coming back to what works for you and do a little bit more.