As divers, we tend to be very invested in every last detail of our equipment: How many nitrox mixes can our computer handle? Does our second stage produce too much bubble interference? How's the field of view from inside our mask? Yet, too often, we neglect our most essential equipment--our heart, lungs and limbs--which ultimately impact our enjoyment (and very often our safety) as much as any BC, regulator or dive computer ever could.
"Improving your fitness means you can more easily handle your gear, swim better and have more stamina for a full dive day," says veteran cave diver and certified health and fitness instructor Cameron Martz, author of Fitness for Divers. "It also protects you from decompression sickness, heart troubles or panic if things get tough. Diving is simply safer and more fun when you're fit."
We agree. To help you improve your scuba shape, we've compiled a baker's dozen of the best fitness tips for before, during and after your next dive.
Walk It Off
Research shows that people who walk four hours a week--that's just over 30 minutes a day--weigh nearly 20 pounds less in midlife than those who don't exercise regularly. Related research shows regular walkers are half as likely to develop heart disease--one of the leading killers in our sport. You don't even have to do all your walking at once to get benefits. Three 10-minute walks a day will help you shed fat and strengthen your heart.
Most of us wouldn't step onto the golf course, tee up and start driving away without taking a few easy swings to get the blood flowing. It's equally wise not to jump into the water without warming up. A good warm-up boosts circulation and lubricates your joints and muscles so you can shimmy into your wetsuit, hoist your tanks, and get up and down the ladder with ease. And it's easy to do. Perform a couple of simple squats. Do push-ups against a wall. Put your hands on your hips, and twist your torso left and right. Make easy windmills with your arms. Pay attention to places in your body that feel tight and give them a stretch. That's it. With just two minutes of easy activity, your muscles and joints are ready for the rigors ahead.
Make Some Muscle
It's not your imagination--that 50-pound tank really is getting heavier! Sometime after we blow out the candles on our 30th birthday cake, we start losing up to a half-pound of lean muscle tissue a year. That means less strength and, because muscle fuels your calorie-burning metabolism, more fat. Turn the tide with a little strength training. U.S. Navy research shows you can replace two pounds (nearly five years' worth!) of lean muscle tissue and shed four pounds of fat by doing just four strength training exercises three times a week. Do these core four moves (three sets of 10 repetitions) starting today:
Stand, holding dumbbells at your sides. Squat down like you're sitting in a chair until your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor (don't let your knees jut past your toes). Return to start.
Lie on your back holding dumbbells over your chest with arms extended. Lower the weights until your upper arms are even with your chest. Press back to the start.
Stand, holding dumbbells. Bend forward from your hips until your back is nearly parallel to the floor, with your arms hanging down, palms back. Pull the dumbbells to your chest, then lower.
Drink up ...
Dehydration increases your risk for DCS. Hydration experts recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces, especially on the days leading up to a dive. All liquids count (well, except booze), but water works best.
... But Not Too Much
Speaking of fluids (or "unfluids"), mounting evidence shows that a beer (or other adult beverage) or two a day is good for your heart, but more than that is a buzzkill for your body, especially if you plan on diving. Alcohol is well known for its dehydrating effects. But more importantly, booze messes with your anterior cingulate cortex--the error detection center of your brain. That's really bad business before a dive. Having too much also can hurt you the day after. Hangover doesn't just lead to headache, fatigue and poor brain function; studies show it also stresses the heart and increases your risk for cardiac death.
Flex Your Feet
Unless you're a ballerina, the only time you spend an hour or so pointing your toes and flexing your feet is when you're 50 feet down, finning like a fish. The result can be painful foot cramps. The best way to avoid them short of dancing in silk slippers: "Toe grabs," says Martz. "This simple move can strengthen the muscles that support your arch, so they're less likely to fatigue and cramp up on your next dive." Do it twice a week.
Strengthen Your Support System
Weak back and ab muscles open the door to low back pain, especially for divers who spend so much time bowed like a U as their legs drift up behind them. Ab crunches can prevent some pain by strengthening the muscles that support your torso. But research shows the fullest protection comes from flipping over and working your spine supporters through their entire range of motion. Do crunches and extensions (described below) twice a week.
Scientists have found that practicing yoga can help improve your lung function and breathing capacity. But you don't have to be a yogi to breathe better. Get similar benefits by stretching your chest muscles, which helps open the chest cavity, and practicing deep breathing to expand your active lung capacity. You can even do it right at your desk: Raise your arms out to your sides and pull them back as far as possible. Hold that position and take five or six deep, full breaths. Relax. Repeat daily.
Calm your calves
Like your feet, your calves are prime territory for dive-wrecking cramps. Keep those muscles calm with a little exercise, says Martz. "Strong calves make finning easier, and fitter muscles have better circulation. Both help reduce your risk for cramping." Here's one of his favorite moves. Perform it twice a week.
Calculate Your Risk
Heart disease is responsible for nearly half of in-water diver deaths. Avoid ending up in that grim statistical pool by knowing your risk. The National Institutes of Health has developed a Heart Attack Risk calculator that will rate your risk. Go to www.nhlbi.nih.gov and click on "Health Assessment Tools." A risk of less than 10 percent is considered good. Anything higher warrants a trip to your family doc to keep your pump primed for the sport.
Stock (and Restock) Your Stores
An hour-long dive can burn as many calories as a 10-mile bike ride--about 500. Fuel up with slow-burning carbs, like a banana and whole grain toast, before taking your first plunge of the day. Afterward, rehydrate and restock some of your glycogen (carb) stores with a sports drink like Gatorade.
Train Your Brain
In a sport that demands gear assessment and occasionally high-pressure problem solving, mental fitness is a must. You can train your brain to respond coolly to high-stress dive situations through visualization. Mentally rehearse upcoming dives, including any emergency procedures that might arise. Pause at key points during the dive (such as before descending, once arriving at the bottom, etc.) for a quick assessment. Relax, breathe, and check yourself, your gear, your buddy and your surroundings. Then dive on.
Hit the Pool
The more time you spend submerged, the easier it becomes. If you don't dive frequently, consider signing up for some swim sessions at your local community pool. Water workouts not only strengthen your heart and lungs and burn about 600 calories an hour, but they'll also make all that surface swimming feel like second nature.