Swimming Benefits Society As It Ages
Graph courtesy of CNN.
“The unprecedented demographic trends currently underway in Japan are one clear indicator how important swimming can be for the overall health and wellness of every society and country,” says Steven Munatones.
“The benefits of swimming are so evident in one’s youth and middle-age, but the lifelong benefits of swimming in one’s older years is so much more significant. Once everyone learns how to swim and is pool-safe and open water-safe, swimming is a great way to relax, stay fit, and be well for a lifetime. Swimming is a low-impact activity that has many physical and mental health benefits.”
Where the benefits of swimming and the aging of society meet in an unprecedented manner is Japan.
Japan’s population peaked in 2008 at 128,083,960 people. But as the number of births fell below the number of deaths, Japan is experiencing its biggest natural population decline since 1899 when records began. Japan’s population is currently at 124 million this year – but is expected to decrease to 88 million by 2065 and 42 million by 2110 as its population continues to decline by 1 million people every year according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates.
The demographic trends are undeniable. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported that the number of births dipped under 1 million babies for the third consecutive year while the number of deaths in 2018 was 1.369 million. Since 2013, more than 20% of Japan’s population is over the age of 65 and that figure is forecasted to rise above 40% by 2060 while Japanese has an average life expectancy of 85 years as of 2016 (it was 81.25 as of 2006).
Concurrently, there are many swimming pools and thousands of kilometers of swimmable coastlines throughout Japan in a country where swimming is taught young. In 1955, the Shiun-maru ferry sunk in Japan after colliding with the Uko-maru ferry in a thick fog. Among the 168 people who died in the waters of the Seto Inland Sea, 100 elementary and junior high school students drowned.
Their deaths ultimately led the Japanese government to start a nationwide program of building pools and teaching swimming in public schools. Because most schools did not have a swimming pool on campus before the 1960s, Japan went on a pool building spree with over 86% of elementary schools, 73% of junior high schools and over 64% of high schools with pools with mandatory swimming instruction in school.
As a result, Japan has very successfully decreased the number of its drowning tragedies with the swimming policy [see here]. But, also very importantly, the collective swimming experience and abilities of the average Japanese citizen has led to a boom of swimming in their senior years.
One example is Toshio Tominaga (富永俊夫 in Japanese) who played water polo and swam in elementary and high school. Tominaga was a competitive swimmer, but then he began his professional career at a Japanese electronics corporation and took off from his competition for several decades.
As the intervening decades passed, Tominaga stayed in good shape, but he had to dramatically reduce the number of hours that he trained in a pool. But after retirement at the age of 62, Tominaga took to the oceans surrounding Japan and started to make up for lost time – staying healthy and staying in shape.
For years, he did numerous ocean swims from Okinawa in southern Japan and occasionally traveled overseas to swim in the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey in 2009 and an attempt across the English Channel in 2013. But the most difficult ocean swim in Japan, the Tsugaru Channel, was one of his life’s goals. He trained and got himself physically and mentally prepared. He studied the logistics and different strategies of crossing the technically difficult 19.5 km channel.
In 2016 in northern Japan, the 73-year-old retiree finally achieved his dream swim.
“Tominaga-san had marvelous conditions as he started from Gongenzaki Cape on Aomori Prefecture [shown on left] on the main Japanese island of Honshu,” explained Steven Munatones. “With Captain Mizushima at the helm, he started much later than other Tsugaru Channel swimmers, entering the water after 7 am.”
Then he started to head north towards Hokkaido with a slight bearing just west of his goal. On his main escort boat, Captain Mizushima continued to adjust his course based on the strength of the currents and wind. On his secondary boat to his left, his 67-year-old wife Yukiko cheered him on.
Tominaga remained lucky from start to finish with the generous conditions offered by Mother Nature.
He was able to swim on nearly a straight shot between his start on Gongenzaki Cape to the town of Fukushima on the southernmost part of Hokkaido, taking only 9 hours 58 minutes to cross.
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