Here at the YMCA, we believe in encouraging people no matter where they are in their health journeys. We strive to provide a variety of resources to help our members achieve their goals. An example of this includes pools, which are in nine of our facilities across Greater Oklahoma City. In these pools, thousands of adults and children have learned to swim, parents have thrown hundreds of birthday parties and, of course, swimmers have logged likely millions of laps at meets and as part of their exercise regimen.
Swimming targets every system in the body – from your head to your toes, and from your heart to your lungs. Swimming trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently and improves muscular strength and flexibility.2 It’s also easy on the joints, which makes it the perfect workout for any age and fitness level.3 If you’re looking for a vigorous yet low-impact workout, swimming might be for you.
We know at least one YMCA of Greater Oklahoma City member who agrees. Hisham Kanaa is a self-proclaimed “fish” who says he tries to swim about 20 laps every day at the North Side Y. Growing up in Syria, he initially swam for fun, but he developed such a love for it that he began to swim competitively in his youth. He was also an accomplished high diver. Nearly half a century later, and in a different country, his motivations for getting in the pool have now shifted. Mr. Kanaa’s doctor advised that either swimming or walking every day would help with blood circulation and keep his heart healthy. As someone who has been swimming almost his entire life, he seems pretty pleased with that “prescription.”
However, this is not an uncommon recommendation from doctors who see older patients. After all, blood circulation becomes more important as we age. But why is that?
There are many answers to this question, but one of them points to plaque build-up that forms in arteries. This accumulation of plaque hardens and narrows the arteries, making it more difficult for oxygen-rich blood to flow through the body.4 Oxygen-rich blood is essential to a properly functioning body since every cell, organ and tissue need oxygen. Plaque build-up weakens and damages the heart over time because the circulatory system’s efficiency and effectiveness diminish, and the heart has to work much harder as a result. Aerobic exercises like running and swimming help blood vessels keep free of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up) and can lead to new coronary vessels in your heart, which dramatically reduces the risks and severity of heart attacks.5
This brings us back to Mr. Kanaa and his swim routine.
As he engages in this aerobic exercise, he’s strengthening the most important muscle in the body: the heart. As his heart contracts more, it becomes more efficient at pumping, leading to better blood flow throughout his body. For about 3-4 hours a week, he’s basically asking his heart to do a fast, forceful sweep through his arteries to get oxygen and nutrients to the rest of his body.
The reason his arteries are able to do this so well is because swimming (and similar exercises) helps to keep them flexible and in good shape. This is similar to a ballerina who maintains her flexibility by practicing every day. As the saying goes, ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.’ If Mr. Kanaa does this often enough (the typical recommendation is 150 minutes a week), a scenario in which plaque build-up is prevented, stalled or reversed is more likely to occur.
Swimming can work wonders on your heart and overall health. Even if the benefits weren’t as remarkable, Mr. Kanaa would probably still swim just as often. Without a pool, he’s a fish out of water.
If you don’t know how to swim, have no fear! We have swim lessons for people six months and older. Visit our programs page to learn more.
February is American Heart Month. We encourage you to take actions today that will keep your heart happy and get you where you want to go on your personal health journey. If you’re considering adding swimming or another aerobic exercise to your current workout routine, we advise that you consult with your physician beforehand.