Swimming is a great way to have fun and cool off during the hot summer months. It’s also an excellent aerobic exercise . If you’ve gone swimming, you’ve probably heard that you should wait 30 minutes after eating before getting in the water. Does this popular piece of advice hold true, or is it a myth that swimming after eating can be dangerous? Read on to discover this and other swimming safety tips.
Where did the myth of swimming after eating come from?
If you grew up with your parents telling you to wait 30 minutes after eating to get in the pool — or if you now tell your own children the same thing — you’ve probably wondered where that piece of advice came from.
“That idea came from the fact that it took a bit of time to digest our food, and if all of our blood supply was in our stomach digesting food, we would not have enough blood supply to avoid cramps when swimming,” says Carol MacKusick, an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner at Toxaway Health Center in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. “The reality is, unless you ate so much that you can barely move (think…Thanksgiving dinner!), you should be fine. Even if a small cramp occurs, simply float on your back or tread water until it passes.”
So, is it always OK to swim after eating?
To dive — no pun intended — further into the myth that it’s dangerous to swim after eating, it’s important to understand how digestion works. After you eat, blood flow to the stomach and intestines increases. This means there isn’t as much blood flowing to other parts of the body, like your muscles. Poor blood flow can lead to muscle cramps , causing the muscles to contract and become hard and tense. The belief is that if your muscles cramp up too much while you’re swimming, it can lead to drowning.
However, muscle cramps usually last a few seconds, although some can last several minutes. Even if your muscles do cramp while swimming, you should be able to tread water long enough for the feeling to pass. The most important thing to remember if you get a cramp while swimming is to avoid panicking. If you start thrashing and overexert yourself, your muscles will tire faster, which could be dangerous.
5 swim safety tips
So now that we know that it’s usually OK to swim after eating and if a muscle cramp arises, it’s best to float on your back or tread water and keep calm until it passes. Let’s look at some other common swim safety questions.
Can you eat or chew gum while swimming?
Although there is minimal risk of muscle cramps severe enough to cause drowning, eating or chewing gum while swimming comes with another risk: choking. Chewing gum and eating aren’t complicated tasks on their own, but if you combine them with another physical activity, it could be dangerous.
“Avoid jumping in the water with gum or food in your mouth,” MacKusick advises. “You may inadvertently get water in your mouth, and if there is food or gum in there, you may choke.”
Is it OK to swim alone?
“Never ever swim alone, adult or child,” MacKusick warns. “You may not be able to get help if something were to go wrong.”
Strong swimmers might feel like it’s OK to go for a quick dip by themselves, but it’s not advisable. If you swim on your own and get an injury, you may not be able to get help  quickly enough to prevent drowning. You should always have a buddy with you, even if a lifeguard is on duty.
Can you jump into a natural body of water?
“NEVER jump or dive into a river, lake, or other area where you do not know the depth and cannot see the bottom,” warns MacKusick. “You can easily get hurt this way.”
To avoid injury, you should always enter unknown or shallow water with caution and only dive into water that is clearly marked safe for diving – clear of underwater obstacles and at least 9 feet deep. Also note that water levels in bodies of water change constantly, so a body of water that seemed deep when you swam in it last year may be more shallow today.
Even when you avoid jumping in them, some bodies of water could still be dangerous.
“Please, please be careful near and around rivers and waterfalls,” MacKusick advises. “One of the joys of this area is all of our lovely waterfalls, but they are quite dangerous. It is very easy to slip and drown around and near waterfalls.”
Are floaties safe for children?
If you’re a parent and your child isn’t a strong swimmer, you might be tempted to put them in an inflatable floatation device so they can still enjoy the water. But, these devices can lead to a false sense of safety .
“While it may make you feel better to put floaties on your children that cannot swim, these are actually not great,” Mackusick says. “They do not help your child learn to swim, and you may become distracted a bit easier.”
If a child is used to floating with water wings, they may think they know how to swim. In reality, they may not be able to stay afloat without the device. Not only that, but it’s possible for children to slip out of these devices. Additionally, floaties are made of materials that can easily be punctured, causing the wearer to sink.
Floaties can also make parents less observant because they think the child is safe while using the device. If something happens while the parent isn’t paying attention, the child may get injured or drown. Instead of treading water with floaties on, MacKusick advises parents to teach children how to float on their backs without floaties, so that they can reach safety, or teach them how to swim.
Your best option? “Enroll in local swim lessons,” says MacKusick. “Knowing how to swim and being safe around water is always a valuable skill!”
Does bathing suit color matter for children?
When you’re buying a bathing suit for your child, you might want to steer clear of blue suits. The reason for this is simple: Blue bathing suits can blend in with water. This can make it harder to spot a child during an emergency. Instead, choose brightly colored swimsuits that will stand out in the water. If you’re swimming in a light-bottomed pool, consider neon pink or orange bathing suits.
“Think bright colors when dressing your young one for the pool,” MacKusick says. “In case of an accident, a bright color is more likely to be seen on the bottom of the pool versus a blue one.”
No matter what color swimsuit your child is wearing, supervise them at all times.