‘In the water I am free’ – Swimming and rheumatoid arthritis

Bus to the pool

Bus to the pool

woman swimmingI have a good friend who is a keen swimmer and also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body reacts to some of its own cells as is they were foreign and so attacks them as it would a virus or bacteria. RA can affect many tissues and organs but it mainly attacks flexible (synovial) joints. It can be very painful and disabling and it can lead to loss of mobility and loss of function. It is not the same as osteoarthritis which tends to affect people as they get older, however both osteo and rheumatoid arthritis cause inflammation of the joints.  This can result in pain, stiffness, swelling, a decreased range of motion and fatigue. Swimming is an excellent exercise for arthritis sufferers because it provides an aerobic workout without putting strain on the joints.

There are treatments for RA but at the moment there is no cure. Scientists do not know exactly what causes it. There may be a slight genetic predisposition to getting the disease and there are a few factors that can slightly increase the risk but on the whole the onset seems fairly random.

My friend is a very active and lively person, she was fit and healthy, always out walking or riding her bike and the last person you might expect to be hit by such a disease.

We have become good friends partly through our mutual love of swimming, she swims every day, and I decided to ask her about what swimming means to her and how it has helped her deal with the RA.

I’ve always been a keen swimmer. When I was a child I had a book called ‘My Little House’. It was about a lovely house in the country and there were some children living in the house who used to swim in the river nearby, or skate on the pond in the winter. Then gradually the house became hidden under a mass of buildings and roadways and flyovers until eventually it was completely hemmed in. So they decided to move the house on the back of a truck, it was an American book, and they took it to a perfect place in the country, but I remember thinking ‘but there’s no river, no stream, no pond’. I thought ‘where is the water?’. And I’ve always had that sense that to be happy you need to be near the water.

When I was diagnosed with rheumatoid, swimming was my salvation. I said to the doctor, for whom I have a great deal of respect, ‘Will I still be able to swim properly? Will I still be able to swim a mile?’ and he said ‘We just don’t know’. But I can, I swim about a mile most days. It takes me forty minutes.

Swimming is my mental and physical escape. It is not just about the exercise, although that is important, it is cleansing and relaxing too in the deepest sense. I always go to the same pool, the local one, that I fought very hard to save from closure, before I was ill, before I knew I would need it so desperately.

The council was allowing the pool to fall in to disrepair, they wanted to sell off the land, and we had to fight long and hard to keep it open. I spent eight years campaigning against its closure and for re-investment and refurbishment and we won in the end. I am still on the safeguarding committee. We had the indoor, outdoor and learning pool re-tiled and I had to fight hard to keep the depth of the pool, it is three metres deep in some places and it would obviously been cheaper to make it a bit shallower, but I really wanted to keep the depth.

In the end I think we won the fight against closure because I managed to convince a local councillor who subsequently became the local MP and who was also a doctor, that we had to have a children’s teaching pool in the borough, that our children had to have somewhere they could learn to swim.

I go to the pool almost every day. It is crucial to me and so I fit my work around it. It is a beautiful light, long airy pool with big windows to the ground,  on three sides and an outdoor pool that is open in the summer. It is a public pool and I prefer that to exclusive private clubs. I meet like-minded people there, other swimmers, but they are from all walks of life, all ages, varying degrees of fitness. As I have said the pool has a proper deep end, also it is nice and long, thirty-three metres. I am afraid I am a bit lengthist when it comes to swimming pools.

My condition means that I can’t do much walking and no cycling, which I used to love, so the swimming is a very important exercise for me. It keeps the muscle tone, and exercises the joints, it also helps me to stretch. I have to be careful not to overdo it. My favourite stroke is front crawl but I have to limit the amount I do. I can swim on my back if I don’t push myself too hard but unfortunately breaststroke is out for me these days apart from in the sea.

There was no bus running to the pool and although I do have a car I felt that it was important that people should be able to get to the pool by bus, especially children, and I am pleased to say that after eight years of my campaigning we now also have a bus that goes directly to the pool.

I have watched children with all sorts of disabilities being taken swimming and you can see how they relax in the water. The carers and teachers have told me that the children are calmer and happier after they have been in the water.

My condition has limited my mobility in many ways but I am equal in the water, and I am free.’

Swimming for happiness

I have noticed that whenever I am feeling low going for a long swim lifts my mood. It has helped me through some fairly prolonged troubled patches in my life.  I found that no matter how bad I was feeling, if I went for a swim, my mood would lift significantly about 2 to 3 hours after I had left the pool. The effect was clear and predictable. I always felt better, at least for a time. The effect would then last for 3 to 4 hours.

I believe that part of this is the effect of excercise on the brain, and would have perhaps been the same if I had gone for a run, but it seems to me that there is something extra that swimming does to the body.

I looked to see if I could find some research on the effect of swimming on mood, but although it may exist I couldn’t find any. All I have to go on is my own experience.

I have a regular weekly appointment to go swimming with a good friend of mine who suffers from a chronic physical condition, rheumatoid arthritis. She swims every day partly because it is the only form of excercise she can realistically do, and partly as a way of coping with the challenges of her illness. I always meet her, every week, for a long swim, no matter what else is going on in my life. There have been some bad times when it has seemed like the only thing I could rely on. We usually go to the local pool. There is an outdoor pool that is open from May to September so five months of the year we swim outside. We always have a coffee and a chat afterwards and that can be very therapeutic in itself as my friend is very calm and kind and wise, but I am sure there is something in the swim itself that is so helpful and healing.

Besides possible biochemical changes in the brain, swimming requires the alternating stretch and relaxation of skeletal muscles while simultaneously deep-breathing in a rhythmic pattern. These are key elements of many practices, from hatha yoga to progressive muscle relaxation, used to evoke the relaxation response. Because it is so rhythmic swimming lends itself easily to a meditation. As I am always trying to work on the smoothness and efficiency of my stroke I am very aware of my whole body and how I am using it. I often chant or even sing to myself as I am swimming.

Again I have nothing to prove it but I am sure that swimming strengthens the immune system. I swim at least one kilometre a week and have done regularly for the last six or seven years. I swim mainly front crawl and I swim quite strongly. Although I do very occasionally get colds, I find that they are over very quickly, just as they were when I was pregnant. The cold would come and go very quickly instead of dragging on for days or even weeks which was sometimes my experience before I started swimming so much.