My name is Sharlie, and I struggle with depression.
I also teach and attend water exercise classes every week, which has lead to a complete 180 not only in my physical life, but more importantly, in my mental health.
If you are someone who attends water exercise classes or swims on a regular basis, you’re more than likely aware of the amazing physical benefits that water offers to every body, every age. However, what doesn’t get discussed as often is how our time in the water can effect our mental health both during the workout and long after we are back on dry land!
Let me use myself as an example. In 2012 I was diagnosed with a rare stomach disease known as Gastroparesis. Paralysis of the stomach muscles, aka tons of digestive issues that put a damper on almost every part of my life. I could no longer be as active as I was, often needing long naps to be able to recharge after a simple walk through the grocery store. When your whole world gets turned upside down, sometimes your outlook on life does as well. I quickly became depressed, and had no energy or motivation to change it. As I often recall, I did not LIKE the darkness my life had become, but I was comfortable there.
In 2016, my mother talked me in to getting a gym membership where she taught water exercises classes. I decided to give it a try, not expecting to get much out of it. But 5 minutes in to that first workout, a spark started to come back and surge through my entire body. I was amazed at how my body could move, and how much I was enjoying being able to do a physical activity again. It pushed me in ways I wasn’t able to achieve in a land-based exercise or class, and I instantly fell in love with it.
Fast forward 4 years later, and I am now following in my mother’s footsteps, teaching 9 classes a week to class members who are also starting to come alive thanks to the water. But what exactly is so magical about this type of exercise? How does it play a role in benefiting our mental state? Several studies have shown that immersing yourself in water increases blood flow to the brain, which improves mood, concentration, cognitive function and memory. Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author of the book “Blue Mind,” explains that our bodies are naturally drawn to blue space which leads to an overall feeling of wellness and peace. As our bodies are made up of 70% water and water covers the earth’s surface right around 75%, our brains have a natural, immediate response of positivity when we are near the water. Now, imagine those who take 3-4 water exercises classes per week, and how much that can improve their well being!
When someone chooses to take the first step to a healthier lifestyle and chooses to attend a water class, a lot of times that choice comes with hesitation and fear. It’s something new and out of the comfort zone, having no idea what to expect. But as soon as you get in to the water and discover what you are capable of, it’s almost as if the wires in our brains are no longer crossed. Being able to move our bodies and challenge ourselves opens up our endorphins, aka happy hormones! We come alive when we are able to do something we love, and when we are able to do it well. It’s an amazing experience and privilege to watch my class members blossom from being timid to challenge-seekers and water warriors.
Do I still struggle with depression? Yes. And I still have my stomach disease that prevents me from leading a normal life. However, the difference now, is I feel a sense of purpose. When I’m in the water, I know that every bad thought or feeling is going to go away during that time. And the more I’m there and committed to bettering myself, the more and more I slip out of that dark place that tries to live in my head. When I’m in the water, nothing can hold me back, and I would invite you to try it and see just how powerful of a tool the water can truly be.
That being said, most of us have experienced some level of restricted activity due to the global pandemic which has been trying for both our physical and mental state. During a variety of shelter in place orders, some of our gyms have temporarily shut down, reduced class availability, or even closed permanently. If you are someone that is once again ready to rejoin the water warrior force, or ready to jump in and try something new but uncertain of where to start, I highly recommend checking out Swimandsweat’s amazing People2Pool search tool! This online search machine was designed specifically for the aquatic fitness community to locate great certified instructors at nearby facilities. You can search by zip code, class type and more—and right now the tool is conveniently color coded based on participating instructor & facility open status! Green is open, yellow is limited, and red is closed. There are also some instructors offering private instruction in the tool! If you are still having trouble finding a nearby facility that is open, try not to become discouraged. There are so many online resources to help you remain active and motivated while staying safe at home. Right now it is important to remember why we started in the first place, and to have faith that we will get back to the water soon. Right now you can tune into my YouTube channel for some great at home routines that I’ve adapted for land. My mom Shelley also has some wonderful options for seniors called Sassy Senior Sit Down, where you can sit comfortably in a chair while working out! We hope to see you getting physical soon, whether at home or back in the pool.
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