'Shielding Taught Me How Important Swimming Is, as a Person with Cerebral Palsy'

·6-min read
Photo credit: Trevor Williams - Getty Images
Photo credit: Trevor Williams - Getty Images

Continued UK lockdowns restricted your freedoms and those of everyone you know. For those in the 'Clinically extremely vulnerable' category, however, who were asked to shield, this safety measure was pushed to an even more extreme level.

Here, writer Francesca Hughes, who lives with Triplegic Cerebral Palsy and, as such, has shielded through much of the pandemic, digs into how it felt to lose her ability to swim – and what being in the water means for many in the disabled community.

A swoosh of water runs over my head, back and legs. My arms pull me further through the clear liquid expanse of the pool. My movement, for once, carries a sensation of effortlessness and ease – I'm weightless, buoyed by a translucent sea.

I feel most free when I swim. As a disabled person – I live with Triplegic Cerebral Palsy, which means that three of my limbs are impacted by the condition and, as such, that I walk with the aid of crutches – swimming and walking in water allows me to move independently for hours.

As well as giving me this relief, vitally, swimming is the only exercise I can undertake without pushing myself into a fatigue spiral.

Why is swimming beneficial for those with Cerebral Palsy?

The best way to explain what this is like is via an analogy I first constructed as a child. When I was 7, I watched Disney film The Little Mermaid, and remember relating to the contrasting ways in which the red-haired, green-tailed protagonist, Ariel, moved. In the ocean, she flows with ease, but walks in a laboured way on land after being granted legs through a deal with the sea witch, Ursula.

Like her, my movements are slow and must be thought through on earth. This is typical of those with my condition. According to The American Academy of Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine, people with Cerebral Palsy 'may have to use 3 to 5 times more energy to perform the same amount of work as their peers in terms of effort, persistence, muscle control, and concentration'.

This sense of freedom was something I first experienced before the age of two, as part of conductive education which supports the development of children with Cerebral Palsy and other neurological conditions. By four I was starting to swim without floatation aids.

I took the thrill of my last pre-pandemic swimming session – in late January 2020 – for granted. I had decided to take a break for a while as I had a lot of deadlines for writing assignments coming up, so could no longer commit to several rewarding but time-consuming hours a week to travel to my nearest accessible pool in Wellingborough, a market town close to Northampton. Here, there are stable steps with handrails that help me with getting in and out, and a hoist for people that need it.

Fewer than six weeks later, I made the voluntary decision to shield before the official lockdown, when I saw my disability listed on shielding government guidance, though I never received an official letter telling me to do so.

Through the weeks, then months, then year that followed, I felt a hum of frustration that I had robbed myself of that experience before it was strictly necessary. As well as missing the weightlessness and joy of being in the water, there have been long-term physical impacts: my muscles are noticeably tighter.

How do the benefits of swimming carry over to life on land?

Chris Smith, a physiotherapist and clinical director of charity C Potential, knows all about the benefits of swimming for people with Cerebral Palsy. He told me: 'Swimming is a form of progressive resisted muscle strengthening, as the water provides good resistance to movement. This form of resisted strengthening is advocated in NICE guidance [for people with Cerebral Palsy.]

These boons have ramifications for on-land activity. 'The effects of muscle strength improvements from swimming can carry over onto land and be seen in improvements with reduced spasticity, improved cardiovascular fitness and endurance.'

But Cerebral Palsy is not the only disability for which swimming can prove endlessly helpful. Swimming is the only form of exercise accessible to Shona, 23, who is a power chair user living with spinal problems and chronic pain. She has really missed the water during various lockdowns – she was instructed to shield – and can’t wait to get back in it again.

'Being in the water is incredible for my body and being able to swim keeps up my strength, which helps to support it. Over this past year, I’ve really recognised just how much swimming was helping me as I’ve lost a lot of strength and as a result, and I’m dealing with more pain and problems now.'

This resonates for Carrie-Ann, 34, a woman with Cerebral Palsy. 'Swimming even just for 20 minutes can transform how I’m feeling. It’s almost meditative for me... in that moment my body isn’t disabled, it’s strong and powerful.'

Like Shona, Carrie-Ann has noticed that not having access to a pool over lockdown has negatively impacted her mobility and wellbeing. She said: 'I've definitely seen a reduction in mobility and fitness, some weight gain and mental health regression when I haven't been able to access swimming because of COVID restrictions.'

Meg, 28, became disabled 2 years ago after a brain injury. Previously a strong swimmer, since then, she has not been able to swim, but being in the pool is important in enabling her to walk and do other exercises in water. Before lockdown, she was in the process of relearning how to swim – something she hopes to take back up again, after receiving her second vaccination dose in May.

As to when I'll be back in my happy place? For safety reasons, though I have had my second dose, I haven't ventured into the pool, yet, as I am waiting for the two-week period to pass in which the medicine becomes fully effective.

Soon, however, I hope to book a quiet slot back at the pool, where I will feel that same effortless rush as I glide through the water and release myself into the familiar rhythm of backstroke. I can't wait.

What are the benefits of swimming for people with Cerebral Palsy?

  • Improves muscles and strength as it allows disabled people to move muscles they can’t on land.

  • Can help with coordination and posture as it moves disabled people to move a supported environment.

  • Important non-impact sport that does not place pressure on the joints.

More information about swimming with Cerebral Palsy can be found through CP Sport.

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