GRAND BAHAMA ISLAND -- Even with those legendary tropical breezes islands are famous for, it gets hot down here in August and all of us look for any excuse to fall in the ocean, a pool or a puddle, which we have a lot of when the afternoon showers roll in about 5. Grand Bahama is a solid-rock island -- we have virtually no topsoil -- and no one has taken the time, effort or money to dig through the rock to make storm sewers.
Whatever the body of water, some of us fall in and simply float, immobile. I used to be one of those types, and had pretty much convinced myself that breathing and floating done together was a nice exercise. I did lots of repetitions. But lately I have seen the light. When I saw that even the president said swimming was a good thing I put down my paper and nearly ran to the ocean. As I puffed mightily along the shore, several revelations came to me:
1. Swimming -- what we'll define as organized, repetitive motions in water designed to propel you -- is probably the best overall exercise for most of us, even better than walking.
2. If you are moving through the water with both your hands and your feet in motion, you are building your entire body's stamina, muscular endurance, flexibility and strength.
3. Unlike jogging or jumping rope, it's very hard to hurt yourself swimming. Water offers gentle, passive resistance, which places less strain on your joints and other body parts. That's why swimmers seldom complain of soreness unless they slip on the side of the pool and fall on their bum.
4. Swimming can be a great aerobic exercise. Ken Cooper at the Aerobic Research Institute in Dallas rates it as the second best aerobic exercise, behind cross-country skiing, but ahead of jogging. Since Cooper believes in jogging like I believe in dessert, that's saying something.
5. You don't need to be swan-like to be a successful swimmer. I used to be self-conscious swimming around others because of my style, which looks somewhat like the movements of a nervous rabbit with a twitch. Motion is what counts, not grace. Invent your own stroke if you want to.
6. Swimming isn't the only thing you can do in water. Be creative. You can do virtually any movement in it you do out of it. For instance, why not try a water-based calisthenic routine before you start swimming?
Stand neck-deep in the pool and, with your arms straight at the elbow, make large circular motions. Do about 20.
Stand with your hands on the side of the pool for support and do circular motions with each leg. Do 20 of these, too.
Do knee bends in the shallow end of the pool. Again, 20.
Simply start walking briskly through the water. The deeper the water, the more the resistance and benefit. Swing your hands in the water, too.
7. Swimming pools are a great place to increase your strength for other sports activities. Billy Olsen, an Olympics pole vaulter, even practices pole-vaulting technique and form with a weighted pole underwater in the end of a very deep pool.
Seriously. If you throw a ball or play a kicking sport, or play golf you can duplicate that motion under water and greatly increase your strength. But don't ride your bike in the deep end of the pool without your snorkel.
8. Always warm up before exercising strenuously in water. Stretch while holding onto the side of the pool, and then hold onto the edge of the pool and flutter kick for awhile, face up and face down. And never dive into the pool if your body already is hot or stressed from exercise. Sudden temperature changes like this have made a lot of people pass out or worse.
9. If you haven't been around a pool in a long time don't try to be an Olympics star, either. In the beginning you probably won't be able to swim the 20 hard minutes any real aerobic exercise requires, but that's okay. If you are like I was, you may not even be able to swim the length of the pool and back, but that's okay, too. Swim one lap climb out of the pool, walk to the other end, and then do it again. Or swim no further than you can stand up and still breathe, then turn and walk through the water until you are ready to resume swimming.
10. If you are really out of shape or simply uncomfortable with your swimming skills (and if the pool management will allow them) you might want to get a kickboard. Kickboards keep your head comfortably out of the water while allowing you to really work your lower body and heart. A Styrofoam lid from a cooler makes a nice -- and cheap -- kickboard, incidentally.
11. If you are working out in a lap pool (i.e., a shallow one), and start running out of steam, don't quit. Simply stop swimming, stand up, put your hands over your head and start walking through the water until you you're ready to swim again. If you want to, wave your hands a lot.
12. There are several things you can do to make your swim harder. Many very serious swimmers wear flippers in the pool to increase water resistance and work the leg muscles a lot harder. If you want to give flippers a try, make sure you measure your workout in time, not distance, and make sure you don't slack off your rhythm and speed. If you really want to look funny, you can get "paddles" for your hands, too. They really do work the upper body.
13. Swim goggles may look funny but they make a lot of sense. Contact lens wearers couldn't do without them. You eyes will get red without them. And you'll run into things without them since your eyes will be closed a lot.
Now, all these revelations aren't going to do you a bit of good if you simply turn this page and crawl back into your mental rut. Why not break out a little after work today and go for a swim. Pick up the phone right now and find a pool. If you don't have time to go home for a suit, buy a cheap one at lunch. They're on sale in August anyway.
Here on Grand Bahama, we occasionally swim out to the "boiling holes" that surround our island. Actually limestone caves, which at times go for thousands of feet in many directions, the boiling holes form whirlpools when the tide is going out and spew water like a geyser when the tide is coming in. When the holes are boiling, it's a great thrill to dive down into the hole, kicking as hard as you can with your feet, and then let the hole throw you out, like being shot from a soft and quiet cannon.
Two years ago, I couldn't swim the short distance out to my favorite blue hole near the Silver Point jetty, a distance of maybe 500 feet, without real fatigue. I would sit on the shore most of the time and watch the people who had energy and stamina do what I wanted to do.
Now, I swim out there quite a lot when the moon is full and the tides are strongest and the hole is boiling at its best. And after many dives and soft cannon shots, I swim along the shore for a while rather than simply limping from the water. Next month I'm going to try to swim in the BASRA race. Each year, the Bahamas Air-Sea Rescue Association sponsors a two-mile open-swim. About 300 people participate, a few of them strong enough literally to tow their families behind them in a row boat (some do), and many of them fast enough to be finished before I have started.
But do you know what? I'm going to be doing it -- not watching it -- for the first time in my life. I hope you know how nice that feeling will be.