Joining Your Grandmother’s Water Exercise Class Was the Best Thing I Could Do for My Mental Health

I hate exercising. I’m pretty sure I came out of the womb that way if the stories of my complete refusal to walk anywhere are to be believed. But while I eventually learned to like walking (and get antsy when I don’t get to take a walk for a while), the whole sports and gym thing never jived with me (as evidenced by my failed soccer, ice skating, basketball, lacrosse, and softball careers).

I’m inherently bad at being a joiner, and as a Type-A Virgo (is that an oxymoron?) I cannot handle being the worst at something. And when it comes to physical activities, unless it’s picking up fat dogs or walking forever to get the perfect photo, I’m historically bad at sporty things. So instead of sweating out my stress and increasing my endorphins, all going to the gym does is give me premature white hair and an inferiority complex I don’t generally suffer from.

But it’s January, new year, new you and all that bull that leads us to go outside ourselves and try this novel concept of trying to do things so we don’t feel like a week old fur ball the cat hocked up under the couch. It was time (OK let’s be real, about three years past time) to do something about my stress and anxiety. I needed something to help with the chronic pain of hyper-mobility and never acknowledging that I shouldn’t pick up that 150 pound thing, and the docs said until I can “learn my limits” I can’t do yoga. So what the hell is low impact and stress relieving that I don’t suck at and doesn’t require me to beg a local pony club to take on a 34 year old?

For me, that’s anything involving water. I don’t care if it’s the ocean, river, bay, or pool (I’ll pass on the ponds, the mud to water ratio is a bit too extreme for me), the sight, the smell, and the feel of weightlessness centers me in a way nothing on land can. I’m a decent swimmer and thanks to the giant flotation devices on my chest, am shockingly buoyant, so I never have to think too much about what my body’s doing in the water. I can just submerse myself, literally and figuratively letting the weight of life slip off my back.

The downside to my master swimming plan, is of course, that it’s cold as balls outside in January in the Mid-Atlantic, and my usual community pool is empty, and while I like the brisk air as much as the next person of British descent, I’d rather be Hades’ bride than do a polar bear swim in the wild blue yonder at this time of year. Indoor options include my local university (if you think I’m putting on a bathing suit in front of coeds, you’re hilarious) and some megalith 24 hour gym where the people seem to only inhabit it at 2 AM and might actually be zombies. The only logical course of action was the local county rec center– yes the one inhabited exclusively by your grandparents.

Knowing my lack of commitment, I chose to do the drop-in option for a deep water exercise class. I had no idea what I was getting into; I had dreams of being back in college and over-booking my schedule and not being able to find the building in time the night before (did I mention I was a Virgo?). I got there 45 minutes too early, decided to swim laps then completely failed on getting out of the pool and more or less reenacted Moby Dick capsizing the Pequod leaving a bruise the size of Ahab himself on my left leg. I was at the wrong end of the pool. The chlorine was so strong it legitimately burned my skin, and before the class even started I was regretting it.

But as they are wont to do, a very nice grandma took pity on me, introduced me to everyone, assured me I’d be able to figure it out after a few classes, and more or less kept me from running away with my tail between my legs. So I pulled on my big girl buoyancy belt (it’s quite the accessory, a giant blue back brace synched so tight under your boobs it acts as a corset) and jumped in. And, as it has done for most of my life, the water took over from there. The 15 feet depth and the vastness of the high dive pool, the smallness of the class (there were only four of us), and the powerful flotation of the belt, erased all my concerns. It didn’t matter if I was good or not, how I looked, or if I had a future as the youngest member of the grandma synchronized swimming team.

I was floating. My joints were free of pain. My muscles could stretch as far as they wanted without any pressure. And most importantly, my mind was blissfully empty. I knew within minutes of starting, that I’d found my thing. Even with a class with a combined age older than the United States and the only participant with all my original parts (the hip & knee replacement convos were a hot topic), I’d found something to make me feel better physically and mentally, and surprisingly I was pretty good at it.

The deep water exercise is all about using the natural resistance of the water to stretch and tone your body. In many ways it’s part water yoga, water aerobics, and cardio; and the more flexible you are (my specialty) the better. It’s not something you’re going to drop a ton of weight doing (unless you did it every day), but it will make you stronger and improve your endurance. Each class gets a bit more intricate, requiring more coordination and stamina, which I like because it means I have to stay focused.

And that, for me, is perhaps the biggest blessing of all. Being in the water and having a task to do (that’s not like dodging waves to keep from drowning), keeps my mind in the moment, which is not something that comes naturally to me. As a kid I lived entirely in the past, only ever dwelling on what was behind me. Now it’s the opposite; I exist entirely in the next task on my list. I’m horrible at being present and generally only devote the back of my brain to cataloging what’s happening in the now. It’s why I tune out in conversations and play them back later to catch up. It’s why at the beginning of every movie, book, concert, all I’m thinking about is the ending. During this class though, I’m there for every breast stroke, arm punch, kick, and underwater running stride. For perhaps one of the few times in my life, my brain and body are occupying the same time and space. (Believe me, the irony of needing to be submerged in deep water to feel grounded is not lost on me.)

I’m now a few classes into the routine, and I feel confident that I’ll stick to it. I like that it’s creating routine in my life that is planned and not just a constant state of reactionary panic. For the last few years my life has been an ongoing case study in Dr. Malcolm’s Chaos Theory, just with (mostly) metaphorical skull crunching dinosaurs. As self-employed freelancer, I’m able to make my own schedule, but continuing the Jurassic Park analogy, “life finds a way” of punching you in the face, and I’ve been working around my life when it calms down enough to catch my breath. It’s a key component of my stress and anxiety, and I need more rigidity and structure in my day-to-day. I need calendar blocks that tell the latest crises to “Please make an appointment, Katie is currently booked.” Now after class I head to my local coffee shop, pull out the laptop and get in uninterrupted forward-looking work done that is more than just the maintenance level I’ve been managing lately. The freer I feel in the water, the more capable I am of placing boundaries outside of it.

I don’t think this is a magic and permanent fix to my anxiety, but in the depths of the bleak midwinter when everything is a little darker, a little colder, and a little harder, spending my mornings submerged in the deep blue (thankfully warm) waters of the local rec center helps chase the shadows away.

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