The gym has never been the sort of place I like to be. I don’t have fond feelings for the smell of sweaty bodies gripping metal or fluorescent-lit rooms lined with mirrors. I don’t exactly feel empowered as I swing repetitiously on the elliptical (although it definitely wins over the treadmill any day).
Another big reason I’m not into the gym: I have a chronic, potentially debilitating autoimmune disorder—say it with me: ankylosing spondylitis (or AS). It is a type of arthritis that primarily affects my spine (although it affects all my joints) and can potentially cause my vertebrae to fuse together. For me, it hasn’t shown its darkest side yet. There are others my age who take medicine daily and can’t move around without a cane or wheelchair. But there are days when my dreams about the future become paranoid, anxiety-ridden worries about being paralyzed or bedridden, totally out of control of my body and suffering from pain for life.
When I go to the gym, I’m acutely aware of my limitations, not in comparison to others, but in how they make me feel weak. In group HIIT classes, my wrists burn as I push through burpees (which should be outlawed IMO), and during leg day, I worry my swollen knees will pop. I love the sense of power and determination I get from exercise, but I know my weaknesses: high-impact activities and literally any type of cheese ever (but that’s another story).
A few months ago I had a metabolic test done. As suspected: low good cholesterol, 20 pounds overweight, and high blood pressure. The prescription? Exercise. I thought, “Ugh—how am I going to do this?” The thought of showing up and sweating it out for an hour in a gym only made me feel more powerless over my body. I gave in to the woe, feeling bad for myself, soaking in my own self-pity. And then I got angry—at my condition, at my laziness, the whole thing. But then that anger turned into determination. I decided I wanted to invest in my health and take it seriously this time. But how?
I was raised in New Jersey and spent summers “down the shore.” I had always found water to be healing and meditative, whether I was on a river along the East Coast or in the Mediterranean Sea. In water, I could be weightless and let myself go, trusting the tide and the natural energy of something so much bigger than myself. I loved that feeling, so I decided the pool would be my best bet for exercise.
And, not for nothing, the National Institutes of Health say water is one of the best fitness options for folks with arthritis and AS. Plus, according to the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, swimming offers plenty of benefits—it reduces fat, increases strength, and raises good cholesterol (exactly what I needed). So I bought a bathing suit (it 100 percent has the words bae squad on it, and I feel no shame about this fact) and marched over to the pool during my lunch break.
Three lanes. Twenty-five meters. Two other swimmers in the water. One swimming so fast I thought I accidentally stumbled upon some sort of masters group. One bobbing along, carrying tiny water weights. And then there was me. I jumped in and swam a lap. I tried to hide my pathetic breathlessness and exhaustion at the other end of the pool. I sucked it up, and did another. Wait. My arms are broken! My legs are broken! (No, just kidding—but it felt that way.) The exhaustion was palpable. My lungs were burning, my limbs were sore, my mind went foggy, and I felt shaky.
In short, I was hooked! Sure, it was hard, but I wasn’t tied to a machine. I wasn’t staring at the calorie counter. I wasn’t watching the seconds tick by. I wasn’t worrying about my joints. I was just swimming—on my own, at my own pace, and moving through the water with an ease I hadn’t been consciously aware of before. Swimming on vacation is just swimming. It’s supposed to be pleasurable. But who knew it could be just as magical as a focused activity for fitness? Right then and there, I fell in love with the water.
I will likely never be the fastest person in the pool. But I won’t be the slowest either. With each swim, I get stronger, more efficient, and more graceful. Watching other swimmers pass me or change their stroke has become inspiring. Exercise stopped feeling so nerve-racking when I decided to work out for my health. Sometimes I even laugh to myself thinking about all the suckers out on land who don’t realize just how amazing swimming is (sorry not sorry?).
A month into swimming almost daily, tragedy struck: A family member died, leaving me reeling with grief. I was in the water when he passed, and I had just gotten out when I got the phone call. I immediately started associating the pool with his death. I went through all the feelings: I blamed myself for swimming when he died, but at the same time, I also began to feel an emotional kinship to the pool. It was like the water was a friend to me, not only supporting my physical health but also my mental and emotional health.
I got back in the pool and swam through my grief. I started thinking of swimming as a way to quiet my mind. I took a certain comfort in knowing it would be me and that lane, and that’s it. (Also, fun fact: No one notices when you’re crying in a pool). I was able to work through my sadness by going inward during swims.
Two months in and the benefits were not just emotional. I was starting to feel a newfound sense of physical strength. I added aqua cycling (like indoor cycling but underwater) to the mix, and my biceps grew, my waist shrunk, my legs became stronger, my core was tight, and my flexibility improved. I saw a transformation, and it was amazing. I looked and felt great.
Because I realized how much work and time went into making this transformation happen, it became easier to cut other less healthy habits. I stopped eating junk food late at night. I started making wiser meal choices, and I stopped turning to wine or beer for comfort. Of course, I enjoy everything in moderation (including swimming), but changing my body made me realize how much we actually do to it to affect and support it.
While becoming a swimmer (I now feel totally comfortable calling myself that), I recognized an important lesson: Your mind and your body aren’t disconnected; they’re one. Swimming gave me the peace of mind to think about how precious and fleeting life can be and how important it is to care for ourselves and live life to the fullest. That has a lot of different meanings for everyone (for me, it’s still cheese and wine and more cheese), but it’s more than that now. It’s also taking care of myself so I can live well while others we’ve lost aren’t able to. And no matter what, I realized I would always have a free therapist: the water.