Make a splash this summer: tips from HSS to get the most out of swimming and stay safe

Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise. It’s a full-body workout that’s good for the heart and can make muscles stronger, says Jesse N. Charnoff, MD, a physiatrist at HSS Long Island in Uniondale. Physiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“Energetic swimming burns up to 30 percent more calories than running and about 40 percent more calories than bike riding,” says Dr. Charnoff, who also sees patients at a Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) location in midtown Manhattan. “Swimming is also low impact, so it’s easy on the joints and beneficial for people who have problems such as arthritis.”

Federal exercise guidelines encourage adults to engage in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, and swimming fits the bill. Swimming laps, even for 10 minutes at a time, counts as vigorous exercise. “Even small amounts of physical activity can improve one’s health, and exercising for 10 minutes or so several times a day adds up,” Dr. Charnoff says. “For someone who isn’t a swimmer, a water aerobics class is not only fun, but a good way to get a moderate workout.”

Tips to Get the Most Out of Swimming

For people who have been inactive, Dr. Charnoff cautions against diving into swimming − or any other sport − too quickly to avoid injury. “Swimmer’s shoulder” is the most common condition he sees, and it’s caused by overuse – doing too much, too soon. “It can happen if your shoulder muscles, which do a lot of the work when someone swims, have not been built up enough before swimming,” he says.

To decrease the risk of an injury, he recommends listening to your body. One should never try to swim when fatigued. If someone starts feeling that their muscles are getting tired, they should take a break. He also recommends engaging in exercises that strengthen the shoulders and upper body outside of swimming.

Dr. Charnoff has additional recommendations to get the most out of swimming:

  • Gradually build up strength and stamina if you want to swim for longer distances and for longer periods of time.
  • Before swimming, warm up your muscles by moving your arms and legs. This can be done outside or inside the pool. Walk around, do circles with your arms or so some light stretching.
  • Focus on maintaining good form. Poor technique can lead to problems such as neck strain, which happens when people come up for air and overextend their neck. “Swimmer’s knee” is pain caused by extending one’s knee excessively or with a lot of force.
  • Know your limitations and prior injuries, and be careful not to overdo it.
  • Consider lessons if you would like to improve your form or safety in the water.

What to do if You Get a Muscle Cramp

Muscle cramps are common and can be dangerous in deep water, as a cramp can limit the ability to swim. “Anyone who develops a cramp should make their way carefully and safely to the side of the pool,” Dr. Charnoff advises. “They should stop swimming, get out of the water and not go back in until the cramp has gone away completely.”

He says stretching and massaging the cramp could help. If it is not getting better, he recommends applying a warm compress or submerging the limb in warm water. Since cramps are often caused by dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance, he advises swimmers to stay hydrated.

Safety First

When Dr. Charnoff did his medical residency in Miami, he saw his fair share of serious injuries, and the most common involved hitting one’s head against a sandbar after diving into the ocean. “It’s a potentially devastating injury. Some patients became paralyzed,” he recalls. “People should only dive off a diving board or where a sign indicates that it’s safe. Never dive into a river, a lake or the ocean.”

For safety at the beach, Dr. Charnoff says it’s imperative to obey signs and avoid areas with red flags or rip currents. In open water, he recommends people swim with a partner and stay close to the beach. For those who venture farther into the ocean, he recommends making sure you can see the lifeguard and being mindful of your energy level so you can safely swim back to shore. “The force of the ocean should never be taken lightly,” he says. “High tide and rip currents can drag you one to two feet per second and even overpower great swimmers.”

To keep children safe both at the beach and poolside, Dr. Charnoff says they must be watched at all times. He recommends that anyone supervising children know how to swim and learn CPR. “Children should be taught that they should never go to the pool without supervision, they should never run near a pool, and long hair should be tied up to avoid getting tangled in the drain,” he says. “Even if children know how to swim, it doesn’t guarantee their safety, as they may overestimate their own strength or stamina.”

About HSS Long Island

HSS Long Island provides world-class orthopedic care in a convenient location for area residents. Located in the Omni Building in Uniondale, off Hempstead Turnpike via the Meadowbrook Parkway, patients can access top HSS orthopedic and sports medicine specialists for diagnostic exams, pre- and postoperative appointments, or ongoing treatment needs. HSS Long Island offers care by more than two dozen physicians specializing in adult reconstruction and joint replacement, foot and ankle, hand & upper extremity, pediatric orthopedics, physiatry, spine, and sports medicine. Radiology and imaging services are available onsite, including MRI.

About HSS

HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the 12th consecutive year), No. 4 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2021-2022), and the best pediatric orthopedic hospital in NY, NJ and CT by U.S. News & World Report “Best Children’s Hospitals” list (2021-2022). HSS is ranked world #1 in orthopedics by Newsweek (2020-2021). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has the lowest complication and readmission rates in the nation for orthopedics, and among the lowest infection rates. HSS was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center five consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State, as well as in Florida. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The HSS Education Institute is a trusted leader in advancing musculoskeletal knowledge and research for physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, academic trainees, and consumers in more than 130 countries. The institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.

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