I Swam Every Day for a Year—Here’s What Happened

In an era when cold-plunging and our nostalgia for Diana Nyad are inspiring aquatics adventures, one journalist reveals how this ages-old exercise gave her new life.

Eleven years had passed since I’d been to our local YMCA. I’d had to take a long break from fitness, from my career, from most everything that brought me joy due to complications from Crohn’s disease, Ehlers-Danlos (which affects the body’s connective tissues), and POTS syndrome. What these three conditions shared in common was that they did a number on my nervous system and zapped my strength. For years I’d been relying on mobility aids.

But after rejoining the Y and completing a year of swimming for physical therapy, I’ve been able to donate my mobility scooter—I no longer need it. For someone who at one point had so little strength I couldn’t even work my own cell phone, the fact that I’m able to write this article is proof of the effects of swimming. I have more energy and less pain than I’ve felt in decades. After I get out of the pool, I feel like I’m 31 instead of 61. After a nearly life-ending medical event in 2021 and years of coping with inactivity and illness, being in the water is what has made me feel like myself again…finally.

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Bruce Becker, MD, MS, FACSM, founder of Aquatic Science Associates in Bend, OR, confirms I’m not imagining the larger effects I’ve gained from some strokes and paddling. “Swimming impacts the hardwiring of the central nervous system,” he says. Himself a childhood polio survivor who today swims approximately six miles a week, Dr. Becker says swimming has helped him stare down the long-term effects of polio as well as fight common age-related issues. “Once the organs get the signal that you’re in the water,” he says, “that sends signals to your brain telling your body to relax.”

Swimming gave me my life back

On May 22, 2021, I almost died. I had excruciating pain in my left hip, a high fever, extreme fatigue, and I was clinging to life as emergency department staff inserted a ventilator and worked to raise my plummeting blood pressure so they could send me by helicopter to a trauma center in Baltimore. Undiagnosed diverticulitis had perforated my colon and spiraled into a sepsis infection. I was in septic shock, and I’d been the focus of enough medical situations to read from the care team that the outcome did not look good.

When the flight paramedics unloaded me in Baltimore, a colorectal surgical team made a 10-inch incision down the middle of my stomach, skirted my bellybutton, and took out one-third of my colon. They placed a temporary colostomy—an alternative exit route for solid waste—to give my insides time to heal.

My body felt wrecked. I was too weak even to lift my phone. My muscles were gone; over months, I’d have to learn to walk again. Skin draped from my limbs like wet lasagna noodles. I spent half that summer in the hospital, crying every day and plagued by nightmares when I slept. Everything I’d been through had given me post-traumatic stress disorder.

Almost seven months after that emergency surgery, on December 8, 2021 the same skillful surgical team successfully reconnected my indoor “plumbing.” (Anyone who’s had sepsis probably understands why I freaked out while registering with the OR staff for my 7 a.m. surgery. After surviving sepsis, I felt like I was constantly running from death.)

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Easing back into swimming

woman in a pool smiling with a yellow pool noodlecourtesy Jackie Duda

Two months later, in February 2022, I started physical therapy. My primary care provider, physician assistant Renee LaPointe, PA, recommended that we add water therapy to my program. I agreed to try it—anything to help me feel active again, and water sounded gentle. We created a regimen that would have me in the pool every-other day.

Explains Maddy Zetlmeisl, PTA, one of my physical therapy assistants at Frederick Health Physical Therapy and Sports Rehab at Aspen Ridge in Frederick, MD. Zetlmeisl explains that after an individual has been deconditioned from not having exercised for a period of time, water therapy is a much better medium for aerobic exercise than land is thanks to its buoyancy and zero gravity. “Exercising in the water gives patients the confidence that they can exercise, as they work their way toward exercising on land,” she says.

Maddy saw me at my worst and knew I needed that confidence: I was 117 pounds, with scrawny legs and flabby arms from the lack of muscle tone.

Undeterred, I climbed into a swimsuit. Sinking myself slowly into the warm therapy pool with a physical therapist coaching me, I walked, waded, marched, and performed squats as I was instructed. I was amazed: I felt gloriously pain-free.

Swimming gave me strength, inspiration and a sense of belonging again

For two months I continued physical therapy. I used aqua dumbbells, noodles, and kickboards. Many days, however, my attempts to actually swim felt more like a feeble doggy paddle. I was gassed after one lap.

After physical therapy ended in May—a year after my near-death experience—we rejoined the YMCA. The pool there is 25 meters, surrounded by windows and natural light. I was still making small strides, using weights or assistance devices to get my exercise…but now, watching other swimmers glide gracefully across the water, I felt determined to properly swim again.

I got online and ordered goggles, a swim cap, nose plugs and ear plugs. Maybe it was a little overkill, but sometimes just stocking yourself with the right equipment can infuse you with the enthusiasm you need to try something new. I also got a snorkel since the Ehlers-Danlos can give me neck or shoulder issues. Sometimes it’s just helpful to have a little aid for breathing and taking it easier.

Dr. Albert Recio, MD, RPT, PTRD, a physician in the paralysis restoration program at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, explains why I found water so rejuvenating—but also soothing: “Hydrostatic pressure helps by reducing pain and swelling and boosting circulation,” he says. “The increase in blood flow releases endorphins, which are a natural pain reliever.”

When I climbed out of the pool, I felt proud of myself…but I also found that swimming helps calm the chaos in my mind. “Aerobic exercise releases neurotransmitters in the brain that release serotonin, which makes people happier,” Dr. Recio explains. The extra boost of serotonin was combating anxiety, depression, and stress.

I noticed my bones and joints didn’t ache, and my breathing had grown easier. Dr. Becker says the increased blood flow from swimming makes the cardiovascular system more efficient and supplies more oxygen to bone cells or other areas that are healing.

After the first six weeks of swimming therapy, I was able to walk outdoors: First a mile, then two, and then three, all wearing an abdominal brace to help stabilize my body from my core.

Today, I walk four or more miles a day without the brace.

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I’m currently swimming four to five miles per week. First, I do some weight-lifting, and then I jump in the pool. I love the feeling of moving effortlessly, and the relief from pain lasts for hours.

Also, I could see my progress. My core got stronger. Sculpted calves, quads and biceps re-emerged. My resting heart rate dropped from the 70s to the 60s—a sign that my heart is working less hard with every beat to supply blood and oxygen throughout my body. I started sleeping much deeper at night, which creates even greater restoration and regeneration for my body.

And despite the regular exposure to chlorine, my hair looks healthier, and my skin positively glows. Recently I went swimming before a doctor’s appointment, and the nurse told me: “You smell like summer!”

These days, even at the start of East Coast winter, I feel like summer.

Jackie Duda
Jackie Duda has written about health and travel for the Washington Post, Woman's Day, AARP, Costco Connection, and more. She has navigated an 11-year battle with multiple disabilities and a life-threatening medical crisis in 2021. Before Jackie became a journalist, she spent a decade teaching English.