Why do humans like to swim?

Why do humans like to swim?

Humans are so fascinated with water that it seems almost silly to say it. Of course we are! We need it to live—to drink and wash, even for travel and transport. Swimming as a leisure and competitive sport holds steady popularity in the UK and globally. And more than half of Brits prefer a holiday by the sea or lakes to any other location. We love a paddle.

For some of us, swimming is an important part of our fitness routine as well. It keeps us heart-healthy and helps tone every muscle group. It’s low impact, so it’s a good way to exercise as you age or if you have joint pain.

But there is more to it than that. As a species, we really enjoy the water. Indeed, study after study has shown that being by the water and in it has real benefits to our mental and physical health.

Born to run

The human body is not really made for swimming. It is made for walking and running. Our upright gait on two legs sets us apart from other mammals—the ones our ancestors were chasing on foot.

Our unusual anatomy actually makes swimming harder for us than it is for animals that go about on four legs. Picture a dog or a horse in the water. Their body position in the water is almost the same as it is on land. Their elongated necks and snouts make it easy for them to breathe. They scarcely need to change a thing to learn how to swim, and most of them can do it instinctively.

People, on the other hand, have to change everything about their usual way of moving in order to swim efficiently:

  1. Lay down instead of standing up
  2. Face in the water instead of in the air
  3. Active breathing instead of passive
  4. Arm propulsion instead of legs

Learning to do these things takes practice. Modeling your body after a capable swimmer helps. Instruction from a teacher and regular lessons is the best way to get a strong and proficient ability. The younger you are when you start, the easier it is, but anyone can learn.

Why bother?

Free diving

Humans, unlike other animals, have the ability to use complex tools. That means we can craft boats, build bridges and retrieve things from the bottom of the water without getting wet. Even ancient people could do these things. But ancient people could and did also swim.

There is at least some evidence for the practical in ancient life: safety. It’s a life skill. If you end up in the water—or in too deep—by accident, swimming will save your life. In fact, Greek philosopher Plato said of the unwisest in society, ‘they spell not neither do they swim’! He said this as if it was a familiar saying, which suggests that in his society, learning to swim was just common sense.

There is an additional practical matter for people: food. Fishing in long-ago civilisations wouldn’t have been on the back of a trawler, but right in the water. The fishing weir, spearfishing, traps, hand-held nets, and freediving are all ancient methods of hunting and food gathering. And they all require getting wet.

In praise of the intangible

But there’s more to our love of swimming as a species. We love the water so much that just seeing it impacts our health. We have an intrinsic desire for blue—the colour. After all, we pay more for an ocean view. It has a real psychological impact on us, making us feel:

  • Calm
  • Safe
  • Relaxed

The sound of water also has real benefits for our mental state, providing a natural lullaby. And nothing replicates that feeling of weightlessness that floating in the water gives. Increasingly, people pay by the hour to float in a saltwater tank in floatation therapy. It is said to improve a number of ailments, especially chronic pain.

Not everyone’s cup of water

Scared pool

While humans in general love to swim, not every individual takes to it naturally. Water phobia is real. It can be brought on because of:

  • A traumatic experience in the past
  • Negative messaging about water safety
  • General anxiety
  • Lack of confidence
  • Many other reasons

But fear of swimming or being in the water can be overcome. A patient and experienced instructor can help you work through feelings of panic. They can teach you in a place of safety and comfort so you feel supported. Private instruction can go at your pace so you don’t feel pressured to take things too fast.

Swimming requires a trust relationship between us and the water. And it requires trust in your teacher. We have to believe that the water will hold our bodies up. And we have to believe that what our teacher tells us will keep us safe. To learn to swim, humans must, in many ways, unlearn how to do many of their most instinctive actions:

  • Breathing
  • Standing
  • Walking
  • Catching a fall

For kids, one of the best ways to prevent fear of the water is to play in the water—safely—from a young age. This experience allows children to experiment with how the water behaves. They will try all sorts of things to see what works and just for fun. For adults, learning to swim is usually a bit different, but every adult can still become a safe and capable swimmer.

Treat yourself to a swim

Private Swimming Lessons

At the end of the day, why humans enjoy swimming is perhaps not that important. We can just acknowledge that water seems to have an almost universal appeal to people. The blue is calming, floating makes us feel good, and a splash and swim gives our brains and hearts a boost.

Getting more people in the water is key to unlocking those benefits. Creating opportunities for more people to learn how to swim well and safely is crucial, which is why we teach swimming. It doesn’t matter your age or ability, swimming is always here for your wellbeing.

If you’d like to give swimming a go with one of our coaches, get in touch here.

by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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