Swimming and sea body surfing, snorkeling and sometimes just floating buoyed up by the salty turquoise sea, has been my salvation many times over during my lifespan of five decades.

Swimming as a lifestyle

Since dealing with MS (from my late 30s) I have learned how to stretch out and gently work on less able and willing limbs in the warmth of an indoor pool.

I still swim in the sea but need to take far more care in how I get into it, traverse the sand, and rough surf is definitely out of the question.

Within my first decade I learned to swim and joined a local swim squad; and spent countless hours by the beach with my family (a typical Australian rite of passage), and while notching up hundreds into thousands of laps of a 50 metre pool, I overcame my childhood bronchitis.

My progress in swim training

At the height of my adolescent swim training, we (the Nowra Swimming Association Squad) would notch up 32 laps of the 50m pool as the warm up alone; then 100m swims, 50m dashes and then for one last 'hurrah' finally 25m sprints.

Our swimming coach (Mrs G.) was the mother of two sons in the Squad. She was especially tough on her younger son Chris who was in a couple of my classes at Nowra High School.

Chris stood out in the crowd as his blond hair was streaked with a silvery green from the constant chlorine barrage.

All this lung capacity and muscle building meant I became very good at Cross Country and 800m running events at school, despite my nearly flat feet.

Back in 1975 I represented the Region in the NSW State Swimming Championships (in the 50 m freestyle), and reached the Regional level in 800m and Cross Country running championships.

When not stroking my way along one of the black lines of the Nowra Pool, I was body surfing and delighting in the beautiful beaches of the NSW South Coast where my parents would holiday every Christmas and most Easter breaks. The only variation was to head further up the North Coast of NSW to Forster where one of my Mum’s sisters, Marge, holidayed with her Taree–based family.

'My right foot began playing up in 2000 and I was diagnosed with MS early 2003. Over the years the foot (and my right leg) has ever so gradually weakened but has improved in strength and agility the last two years since I overhauled my diet as recommended by George Jelinek.'

Keeping afloat

My right foot began playing up in 2000 and I was diagnosed with MS early 2003. Over the years the foot (and my right leg) has ever so gradually weakened but has improved in strength and agility the last two years since I overhauled my diet as recommended by George Jelinek. I no longer need to wear an ankle foot orthotic – a device that was giving me a lot of blister grief in 2011 to 2013.

With MS, I can acutely feel how any stiffness in my weakened right foot eases out after swimming for just a few minutes of the indoor pool. By the end of my session – up to about 16 laps, all the tension has eased out of my body, my heart has had its cardio workout and the endorphin release has increased my sense of well being and mental alertness.

I feel both more alert and later on, more relaxed. I always sleep soundly the night after a good aqua/cardio/muscle stretch workout. When based in Brisbane (until 2007), I was fortunate to be able to join the Hydro pool exercise class held weekly at the QLD MS Society headquarters/gym.

The one-hour session would include about 45 minutes in the pool of a variety of exercises designed to improve balance, dexterity and muscle strength. To this day, I call on a couple of the exercises learned in the Lidcombe (MS hydro pool) at the indoor and saltwater pools where I now live in regional NSW.

The social aspect of swimming

The rest of the session was devoted to chat over a drink and snack after showering. For me, any activity in the water – be it man made pool water, or the ocean – is a natural anti-depressant and de-stressor; as well as a physical tonic and strengthener.

Also, I have become adept at using ‘noodles’ (long foam water resistant aids) and kickboards to help my body with resistance exercises in the pool. The benefits of supervised aqua/Hydro exercise classes for those with physical disabilities, is well-supported research/documentation wise.

For example, a Spanish conducted 2011 study * involving two types of exercise groups (Ai-Chi exercise group, and a general relaxation exercise group) meeting twice a week over 20 weeks, drew the following conclusions.

The wonder of water

Pain levels are significantly lowered with such exercise, water pressure can help reduce swelling, and water warmth helps with muscle relaxation.

It has also been found that hydro exercise helps reduce fatigue, spasms and improves the quality of life for clients with MS.

The buoyancy of the water helps reduce body weight, allowing for more exercise; and the resistance of water helps strengthen muscles. It is two-thirds of the way through the Australian Spring as I write this. Temperatures are climbing above 32 C in the warmest parts of NSW and the sea temps are climbing too.

The 50-year-old salt water lap pool at Huskisson, Jervis Bay, is about to be re-opened for six glorious months. This pool (with fantastic views of the Bay and passing paddle boarders, kayakers, leisure craft, cruise boats) has been both my summer playground, my mental health tonic, and my physical redemption for almost 30 years.

Going with the flow

Back in the early 80s, I took Learn to Swim classes for the NSW Department of Sport and Recreation, during two lots of College holidays.

Back then I would never have imagined having to rely on this form of workout so keenly. MS was as far from my mind as Mars was from my body.

In mid-life with this thing called MS, my view is that life is a journey and the best way to travel is with an open mind and with a body given every opportunity to ‘tune well’ despite the odd speed bump and unexpected hazard.

Not everyone gets to fire on all cylinders into their 60s and beyond, but we can do the best with what we have. And for me at least, that means taking every opportunity to get into the water and loosen up!

Lee Duncan

*Hindawi Publishing Corp.  Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine.  Volume 2012. Article ID 473 963. Below: Husky's beach