Water at any age

A National Drowning Report issued as recently as two years ago showed a dramatic increase in deaths due to drowning. With this statistic in mind, we look at the many benefits to be gained from extra swimming and water safety training, regardless of age.  

Water safety

Most Australians love the water, and why wouldn’t we? With a glorious coastline that contains more than 11,000 beautiful beaches, countryside dotted with rivers and dams, and suburbs with more domestic pools per capita than any other nation1, swimming is one of our most popular national sports and pastimes. 

Despite this, many Australians believe they are far stronger swimmers than they really are or have never had the chance to learn. And, alarmingly, a National Drowning Report from two years ago issued by the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia showed drowning deaths increased significantly.

The lesson here – and one reinforced by Royal Life Saving – is most Australians can benefit from extra swimming and water safety training, no matter their age.

With children – particularly those under five – the most vulnerable to drowning, Olympic medallist Hayley Lewis believes it’s crucial to teach youngsters as early as possible how to save themselves if they fall into water. She says introducing babies to water from birth will help their swimming skills later on, and around nine months is the ideal time to start them in classes.
 “Most kids are scared of putting their face under water so when they’re babies get them used to that at bath time,” says Hayley, who now owns a swim school in Brisbane. She suggests wiping their face with a wet face washer and gently pouring water over their head. “Then, when they’re at crawling age and could get themselves to water and into trouble, that’s the best time to start teaching them to swim.”

Teaching toddlers to swim is a step-by-step process, says Hayley. “We start by holding them, using games and songs to make the water fun, and eventually teaching them to jump in, turn around and dog paddle back to the edge.”

Remember, while teaching a child to swim from an early age can prevent a drowning incident, it's vital that an adult supervises the child in the water at all times. .

Benefits for adults

Hayley says there is a lot of interest in her adult swim classes too. “We have a lot of people from different nationalities who haven’t grown up around water and want to learn to swim, which is great,” she says. “For others, it’s always been a goal and they’re finally doing it.” 

Hayley says swimming, which is a non-weight-bearing form of exercise, can bring great relief for people who have less mobility, arthritic or osteo problems, injuries or stress. It can also be beneficial for asthmatics as it increases lung capacity – a factor that she says can also help to inspire smokers to quit. 

One of the most important factors, of course, relates to overall fitness. Hayley, who won numerous medals at Olympic, Commonwealth and World Championship level, says she has never felt fitter than when she was training daily in the pool. 

A training regimen should vary depending on age and exercise capacity. But, as a general rule when starting out, Hayley recommends aiming for 500 metres of varied strokes, including some kicking and flipper work. For more advanced training, aim for one to two kilometres and include some sprints to increase heart rate – “try alternating 25 fast, 25 slow,” she says.

For adults who want to take their training, water safety skills and fitness one step further, there is the Royal Life Saving Grey or Bronze Medallion. These national programs aim to teach participants a range of personal survival techniques, provide them with skills for emergencies, improve supervision of children around water and develop competence around water-based activities. Children aged 8–15 might like to try a Junior Life Saving Club to develop their swimming prowess.

Whatever the age group, the important message is, all Australians should make water safety a priority. After all, it could mean the difference between life and death. 

1 Pool And Spa Industry Review, 2010 poolandspareview.com.au 

Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.