by Denise Croote '16
Family vacation: it is 1p.m., your mother is yelling at your father for filling the cooler exclusively with beer, your brother is casually pushing every button in the elevator, your pre-teen sister is refusing to wear sun block, and your grandmother is lecturing you on the importance of waiting an hour before you swim because you just had lunch. So there you are, a stunning child of ten, sitting on the bench innocently eyeing the SpongeBob floaties on an eleven-year-old beach beauty. You have perfected your underwater somersault and are ready to spit some game, but cannot seem to evade grandma’s gaze.
One hopes you are old enough to hear this: your grandmother lied to you. Studies have yet to show that eating less than an hour before swimming increases the risk of cramps or drowning. Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Consumer Product and Safety Commission, nor the Red Cross offer any warnings related to swimming after eating. The theory behind this myth is that blood flows to the stomach and away from the muscles to aid in digestion shortly following a meal. As blood drains from the muscles, the muscles are deprived of oxygen, and the lack of flow slows the removal of waste products from the muscles. The buildup of lactic acid consequently induces cramping, which may dampen your ability to swim. However, a study examining drowning in the United States found that less than 1% of the drowning accidents had occurred right after the individual had eaten. In reality, your muscles have more than enough oxygen and there is a sufficient amount of blood flow to support recreational swimming following a meal.
The key word above is “recreational.” The myth likely originated from the fact that professional swimmers and divers often complain of upset stomachs if they train too soon after they eat. Vigorous activity directs blood flow away from the stomach to the legs, arms, and skin. If food remains in the stomach undigested, it could likely make the athlete nauseous. This is the same reason fear makes individuals nauseous. Fear activates the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the nervous system dedicated to our “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is in charge of “resting and digesting.” The activation of the sympathetic nervous system during physical activity quiets the parasympathetic, momentarily halting digestion. Again, this is usually the case for vigorous physical activity and in all actuality you are unlikely to experience nausea or cramps if you casually splash around after eating.
However, ingesting alcohol prior to swimming is a different story. A systematic review of the role of alcohol in drowning reported that alcohol contributes to 10% to 30% of drowning deaths in the United States. A warning put out by the Beth Israel Deaconess Center also claims that 25% of teenage drowning and 41% of adult drowning episodes in the nation have been alcohol-related. So, unless you took a few too many swigs of the beer your father packed in the cooler, you could probably get away with showing that eleven-year-old beach beauty your much anticipated underwater somersault.