Just Keep Swimming

Water has long been my friend. I grew up a block away from the neighborhood pool, and I loved spending hours splashing with friends. While I hated early morning swim practice, and therefore only lasted a single season on the swim team, I’d often stay at the pool until closing time. I never swam laps but enjoyed games in the water with neighborhood kids.

While swim practice felt like a failure, I took to soccer in middle school. I developed a love for the sport, and I cherished the camaraderie with my teammates. My knees often mysteriously hurt when I played soccer, but once my mom started taking me to regular appointments with her chiropractor the pain abated enough to keep playing.

That is, until it didn’t.

How I reconnected with swimming

In high school, I was on the varsity soccer team my freshman and sophomore years, and I played on a club team when it wasn’t varsity season. In the fall of my junior year, I was ravaged by fatigue and joint pain. I missed a lot of school, went to a series of doctors in search of answers, and hung up my soccer cleats.

A low-impact physical activity

It would be another six years before I would be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis/rheumatoid disease [RA/RD]. While I didn’t know why my joints hurt so much, as doctors weren’t able to accurately determine the cause of the inflammation, I did know that I needed a low impact exercise to replace running and kicking on the soccer field. My parents suggested swimming, and my dad offered to go to the YMCA with me to swim laps.

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I found the water to be a joyous reprieve from gravity. Whereas walking, standing, sitting, and even lying down all hurt, the buoyancy of the water lifted the weight off my joints and gave me some relief. I was also able to move in the water, which was a source of great comfort in the midst of the havoc being wreaked on my teenage life. We started swimming laps several times a week. Most of the people there were my dad’s age or older, and many swam slowly. Watching their bodies move at this leisurely but steady and deliberate pace, I realized that not all exercise involves sprinting. While there’s no such thing as “slow-motion soccer,” seeing elderly people slowly swim lap after lap allowed me to realize the pool was offering me a viable option.

The versatility of swimming

In the 25 years that followed, swimming has continued to give me relief and comfort. When I’m having a good day, I can swim laps for an extended period of time, feeling like my body truly works. If my hips start to protest from breaststroke, I can switch to free or backstroke and continue exercising. If my wrists hurt too much to pull myself through the water, I use a kickboard to support my rib cage, resting my forearms across the top, and just swim with my legs. If it all feels like too much, standing in the water and slowly moving my arms, then sitting on a step and slowly moving my legs, gives me some exercise and range of motion practice while having my body supported by the water.

Swimming as an RA-friendly exercise

As with most everything in my self-care toolbox, I go through phases with swimming, sometimes doing it multiple times a week and sometimes going months without entering a pool. Yet, it remains one of the most RA/RD-friendly forms of exercise I’ve found, and when I do swim regularly I am always the happier for it. Just as the cartoon fish Dory used the mantra “just keep swimming” to see her through dark experiences, I use that refrain both figuratively and literally as I navigate life with rheumatoid arthritis.

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