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Stroke of genius: The benefits of swimming

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According to local swim teacher Jennifer Atepolikhine taking up swimming is one of the best things you can do for yourself. James Allen dips into her world.

With hundreds of millions of enthusiasts worldwide, and it’s ‘for anyone’ ethos, swimming is one of the most popular organised sports on the planet. When you consider its numerous fitness, health and mentalhealth benefits, it’s easy to see why.

“Swimming’s an incredible exercise; you can enjoy it from babyhood right through to old age because of its low-impact nature,” opens Lantau-based swim teacher Jennifer Atepolikhine, who was first thrown into a swimming pool aged one.

Utilise all the main muscle groups

Swimming became an Olympic sport in 1896, and there’s no doubt that it can help you get fit, if you take it seriously. According to a report by Florida Swim Network in November last year, swimming burns more calories than running or biking. Biking burns around 483 an hour and running burns 557. Swimming at a fast rate can burn up to 784 calories in a single hour.

More importantly, swimming can get you a strong, toned physique. It engages every major muscle in the body, including core abdominal, lower back, shoulder, forearm, upper back, glutes, hamstring and hip flexor muscles.

“Due to the repetitive nature of the strokes and the fact that water is more resistant than air, swimming is a tremendous exercise,” says Jennifer. “You don’t get bulky muscles, they’re longer muscles. It’s also very good for your shoulders. More than any other sport, swimming utilises all the main muscle groups and many of the smaller muscle groups as well, so you’re really getting a head-totoe workout.”

Swim like a fish

As a qualified Total Immersion coach, Jennifer’s primary focus is to teach swimmers to move through the water efficiently. She suggests that anyone looking to improve their stamina and speed focuses on coordination, balance, buoyancy and streamlining.

“Beginners tend to do a lot of kicking and thrashing around in the pool but you lose a lot of energy that way,” Jennifer says. “You need to regulate your breathing and your body movements to become more efficient. A lot of the propulsion needs to come from your core. Less is more because there’s less resistance going through the water.

“You should be able to keep going, barely raising your heart rate, if you practice this way,” Jennifer adds. “Think of a vessel or a submarine – your front is quite narrow; your feet are quite narrow. It’s often called fish-like swimming because everything feels weightless and the drag is minimised. With Total Immersion, you end your stroke and glide, relying on your momentum.”

Jennifer, who joined a swim team at age seven, where she trained for about 10 hours a week, emphasises that most young children find it easy to learn to swim, and encourages parents to get them in the pool as early as six months. She is confident that, given the right coach, adults can pick up the skills easily too, even those who are nervous around water.

“With adults, the biggest challenge is getting them comfortable in the pool, especially if they’ve had a traumatic experience in the past,” she says. “It takes a couple of weeks to build up their trust and get them to feel at ease in the water. It’s about slowly introducing them to the water, and helping them trust the water and their buoyancy.”

When training up already proficient swimmers, Jennifer analyses their stroke, videoing them underwater at different angles. “Maybe it’s the kick that’s the problem, maybe it’s the hip rotation – it can be something very simple like timing,” she says. “Once your coach has pinpointed the issue, she can give you different focal points to work on.”

Get your mind in shape

benefits of swimming

The good news is that swimming doesn’t only improve your core strength and fitness levels, it can assist with breathing problems, anxiety and even make you more intelligent!

“Swimming’s amazing for cardiovascular because you learn to control your breath,” Jennifer explains. “The rhythmic breathing involved increases your lung capacity, and your lung and heart strength. If you have any breathing problems – with the Hong Kong air pollution these last 10 or 20 years, a lot of kids have been born with breathing problems – swimming’s really good.”

A number of studies even link swimming at an early age to increased intelligence. A 2016 study at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, sampling almost 7,000 swimmers under the age of five, showed an advance of up to 15 months against their non-swimming peers in their ability to follow directions and develop language skills.

“Apparently in the US, swimmers have the highest grade point average because they’re always counting their laps and their strokes, and their coordination is excellent. I’ve learnt that swimming enhances communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain,” says Jennifer. “Breaststroke is the best for this because it’s the most complex stroke to master neurologically.”

As with most sports, swimming can supercharge our bodies’ store of endorphins; the hormone responsible for our feeling on top of the world after a good workout. This plays an important role in reducing stress and anxiety. Jennifer is quick to point out that swimming can be a meditative activity, enhancing mindfulness.

“I think when you’re older, you start thinking of fitness as something to improve mental health – something that will help you deal with pressure and achieve balance,” she says. “Swimming’s quite meditative as you focus on a few things – your breathing, your strokes. You get into a relaxed breathing tempo, and hopefully when you get out of the water you stay that way.”

Even if you look no further than Tung Chung public pool, swimming is something that is easy to pick up and benefit from. And, as Jennifer says, “One of the good things about swimming is that it’s not an expensive sport; you buy goggles and a swimsuit, and you’re ready to go!”

A qualified Total Immersion and AUSTSWIM coach, Jennifer Atepolikhine teaches swimming throughout Lantau and Hong Kong Island. She also volunteers and provides free classes for foreign domestic workers and refugees through SPLASH Foundation. You can contact her at [email protected]

Image: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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