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Does too much head movement negate the benefits of swimming for people with sensitive vestibular systems?

I was disturbed recently to come across a video of young adults with autism/ learning difficulties swimming front crawl, flat out, badly. They were putting their bodies under terrible strain, under the watch of a Special Olympics coach. It seemed like a kind of abuse, albeit unintentional, and reminded me of a comment Chris Packham made, summarising approaches to working with autistic people in America, “Let’s force these people rather than adapt to accommodate them”.

What’s a sensitive vestibular system?

“ The vestibular system is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution to the sense of balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating movement with balance.” (Wikipedia)

Traits common to people with a sensitive vestibular system are: difficulty paying attention in a classroom; sensitivity to noise/ difficulty filtering sound; poor posture, balance and coordination; travel sickness; difficulty reading a map or moving in a straight line with eyes closed; ear trouble.

For anyone with these tendencies, it’s unlikely that swimming the formal strokes, with all the head movement and consequent overstimulation of the vestibular system this entails, will be stress free, especially in noisy, heavily chlorinated pools.

What do I know about it?

As someone who has a sensitive vestibular system, I have first hand experience of stress from swimming the four competitive strokes, however slowly and attentively. This got worse throughout my forties and now, in my fifties, I no longer swim competitive strokes for fitness purposes.

When I think that 20 lengths of breaststroke means moving my head from underwater to a breathing position about 200 times and 20 lengths of crawl means turning to breathe 120 times, it’s not surprising that I feel frazzled after a few hundred metres.

Particularly as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I don’t want to get out of the water feeling like I’ve been at the fairground, overexcited, dizzy, in need of neurofen. I need to adapt instead of forcing myself, like Chris Packham said.

The real benefits of being in water, so obvious that we forget them, are contained in floating about without having to get anywhere; escaping from noise under the surface; enjoying weightlessness, space and freedom to move in all planes and directions, exploring the possibility of swimming without stress. The more sensitive our systems, the more profound these benefits are.

So, I believe that, for people like me with sensitive vestibular systems, swimming the competitive strokes may do more harm than good, but every human being can benefit from being in water, especially individuals with sensitive vestibular systems.

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