In the summer of 2004, I dated a boy who I believed didn’t think I was thin enough for him. I decided to make myself the thin I thought he wanted me to be and put myself on a strict and entirely self-motivated physical regime. I wasn’t accountable to a trainer. I hadn’t paid for group aerobics classes. I did it out of my own strength of will to try to make myself thinner and more acceptable to him. I went to the gym five days per week, using the elliptical trainer and swimming hundreds of laps in the pool. My plan didn’t work. My weight didn’t budge. I eventually stopped because I had burned myself out (and my relationship ended). When I first started rehabilitation three years later, I didn’t think swimming would be of much use to me as a form of healing myself when it hadn’t helped me the last time. My intentions were different this time, but I didn’t know – or see – how that would change the process.
I have always been a strong swimmer. I loved swimming and took to it easily. In addition to swimming laps when I started my therapy, I jogged in the deep end of the pool (wearing a yellow belt). Jogging upright in the water took me away from gravity and thus gave me proper anatomical motion. I didn’t know it at the time, but if I did this exercise long enough in the water, it would train my brain and my body to do the same on land. One of the primary purposes of my therapy is breaking my ingrained physical habits and forming new ones by doing exercises correctly. Jogging in the water created a space for me to move correctly. I also enjoyed swimming much more than I enjoyed going to the gym, so I did it more often and with more enthusiasm than I did the machines and the weight training. I stopped swimming regularly when I took to pilates, but I returned to the pool for several months through the summer and winter of 2011 when I was asked to stop pilates and move onto the next steps that would further help me retrain and re-pattern my brain and change my habits.
When I started swimming again, I was managing the chronic pain that has been present in my back since mid-2009. Swimming laps and jogging in the water helped relieve the stiffness and pain in my back but – as I later discovered – it did not actually stretch my body.
Swimming is a fabulous cardio workout – and I lost loads of weight in the months that I swam regularly – but it didn’t stretch me. On the few occasions that I went to the gym, I discovered that my body was stiff and quite inflexible. I mistakenly believed that the nature of swimming – especially given the motion in my legs – was a good stretch, but it wasn’t. Once I complemented swimming with stretching, I got the piece of the workout I’d missed.
I stopped swimming regularly when I took on a thirty day yoga challenge and then returned to pilates, but swimming makes me feel really good. It is the best form of exercise I have done that has helped me lose weight (everyone noticed that my face was thinner and my stomach was flatter) and it tires me out after a stressful day and helps me sleep. When I spoke with my parents on Skype today, I told them I’d planned to go back to swimming as a form of stress-relief while I write my dissertation. I will go to the pool on the days that I don’t commute to Wimbledon for pilates. It will help me manage the pressure of my thesis and I will sleep better. If I do rehabilitative work I enjoy at a facility ten minutes’ walk from my building, I will have no excuse not to go.