January and September are usually the two months of the year where the most people are attempting to start a new fitness program and get into shape. This year is no different but with the spread of COVID still looming, you still need to be ready for sudden changes and restrictions which may happen, competitions and gatherings which may be cancelled and despite all this, still stay the course.
If you have not been active these last few years, make sure your path to fitness is realistic and achievable. Don’t plan to work out seven days a week if you are just starting out. Under that scenario, if you are very motivated and strong-willed, you may last 2 weeks, and most of us will last about one week. Your body needs time to adjust to the new regimen and recover. Probably three times a week (for consistency), and for 20 to 30 minutes (with no more than 10% increase per week) might be enough. There is no worse fitness plan than the one you just quit because it was too hard and not enjoyable.
Your plan also needs to be balanced, which means you are hitting all key fitness components: cardio, strengthening and flexibility.
Cardiovascular exercise will improve your heart, lungs, circulatory systems, muscles, mental health, sleep and more. It will improve your entire body’s physiology, and swimming is a prime example of a cardio exercise. To benefit from it, ideally you need to perform sustained aerobic activities for a minimum of 20 minutes. If you are just starting out, just swimming 20 minutes with as much rest as you need will do the trick, slightly increasing the intensity, time or distance while progressively reducing your rest in between. If you are at a higher level of fitness, already used to swimming one hour or more, make sure you start including high intensity interval training to improve your speed and challenge your higher intensity energy system.
Strengthening: You need to challenge your muscles by lifting weights, moving your body against gravity, or using other resistance-training tools. In the pool it might just mean pulling with some paddles. However, if you are new to swimming, make sure your technique is good and your paddles are not too big to safely pull without getting injured. For the novice swimmer, I would recommend using small weights or stretch cords on land as a first step to strengthening exercises. Squats, lunges, step-ups, climbing stairs, and core conditioning are all staple exercises.
Flexibility: As we age, we lose elasticity in our tissues. This negatively affects our quality of movement, our postural alignment, and increases our risk for injury. To be able to swim correctly with good technique, you need effective flexibility, which means a good pain-free range of motion with stability and strength to support movement at the joint (some can be too flexible!). Incorporate movements that extend your range of motion as well as reinforce the muscles around your joints. If you cannot get into a streamline position or extend your arm in front of your shoulders on land, you will not be able to do it in the water. Are your ankles flexible enough to have an efficient kick? If not, attending a yoga or Pilates class can be helpful.
Before you start to design your plan to health and fitness, make sure you talk with your health care provider to assess your level of fitness and take care of existing health conditions. Once you have the go ahead, create a weekly balanced exercise plan, not too ambitious but consistent and enjoyable, so you can easily stay with it. Measure your current level of fitness, set up small measurable and achievable goals, increase slowly and progressively the intensity and make sure to include time for recovery. Celebrate progress, be adaptable and most importantly have fun with it. You are on your way to a healthier YOU.