Patrick Quinn may have grown up by a river in Ireland, but it took 47 years and major heart surgery for him to start swimming. 

“I was a runner, a track man,” Quinn, 91, says from his home in Loudonville. “I was pretty good at it. Won a couple of national championships.” 

Despite all the running, Quinn was also a smoker in the years leading up to his surgery, which meant, of course, both a major life shift and a catalyst for lifestyle change. 

“Swimming was the only exercise I could work on, so I decided to get in the pool,” he says. Unlike many other forms of cardio, swimming is low-impact and gentle on the body while providing a strong workout. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Water-based exercise can benefit older adults by improving their quality of life and decreasing disability. It can also improve or help maintain the bone health of post-menopausal women.” 

The CDC also reports that swimming helps people with arthritis improve the use of their arthritic joints without worsening symptoms and that “people with rheumatoid arthritis have shown more health improvements after participating in hydrotherapy (exercising in warm water) than with other activities.” Swimmers also may see improvements in the use of affected joints and a decrease in pain from osteoarthritis.

Quinn says his first few days and weeks in the pool were tough. “I was very, very poor,” he says. “I could only do about three laps.” But after a year of persistence, he found himself good enough at swimming to be invited to join the Masters swimming race. “I lost badly but I was having fun,” Quinn says, laughing. 

The benefits of exercise are well established and known, but the motivation to move — especially when one is in pain or limited in mobility — can hold people back from starting. That’s why finding movement that feels good for your body as you raise your heart rate is so important: It keeps you wanting to come back. The National Library of Medicine says that “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.” 

For people with aches, pains, and lethargy, going for a walk or joining a Zumba class can be uncomfortable or even alienating. Swimming, water aerobics, and other aquatic activity welcomes bodies of all skill levels and types, which Quinn says was a major appeal for him. 

“One of the great things about Masters swimming is you can swim with fast or slow people. You can swim with anybody,” he says. “I can swim with people at any age because they divide the group into slow to fast lanes so you’re always swimming with someone at your own pace.” 

Soon, Quinn had gone from “a 50-yard breast stroker to a two-mile swimmer.” He also quit smoking: “I found that you can’t smoke and swim at the same time. The cigarettes get wet,” he says. 

So he gave up his soggy cigarettes and found his lung capacity improved. “The swimming enabled me to breathe easily,” he says. “I felt so good that I couldn’t smoke anymore and haven’t smoked since.” 

Another benefit Quinn got from swimming? Community. “I met a lot of great, great friends, including people I’ve known now for 40 years,” he says. “That’s the great thing about the Masters. It doesn’t matter how fit you are, how slow you are, as long as you get out there and enjoy yourself and do what you can.” 

Where to Jump In:

Swim groups in the Capital Region

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