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ISSUE 19 ARCHIVE - PHYSICAL FITNESS AND DIVING
Dr Mike GonevskiThe guy is huffing and puffing going up and down on the box during his step test and it is precariously squeaking under his weight. Water is dripping down his face as he struggles with every step.
By the looks of it, he is going to collapse soon. We on the other hand are staring at each other uneasily, mentally making notes where the Oxygen bottle and the face mask are, in case we need to grab them in a hurry to bring him back to life. We might need a new box step. The minutes seem like hours. This is a diver with more than 500+ dives below his weight belt (pun intended). He came for his medical as he plans a trip abroad and needs the paperwork for his insurance company. It is not going well and I start asking myself where do I draw the line? Do I make him suffer for the full 5 minutes of the test or take him out of his misery? Will this be sufficient enough to make him realise that his 300 pound frame is not exactly like that old T-shirt of mine: “Instant Diver. Just Add Water?" Three minutes have passed. I can see it in his eyes. It is obvious that if he had any doubts before, by now he has definitely got the message – “Not fit to dive”. This made me think how many times I've been on a boat with divers at various levels of experience, where you could see several “die-hard” macho divers sitting uptight, a family with a teenager or two and the odd couple of older mature divers who have been around the block a few times. Seems like your average scuba diver is a male, in his early 50's, overweight, likes his pint and smokes. Some of them look so out of shape that you start to worry when you see them struggling to don their equipment and later seeming exhausted when climbing up the short ladder out of the water. When you politely enquire “have you been through any kind of fitness test recently” they might tell you that there was no problem 20 years ago when they started diving or that they were never required to have one. Around the dawn of recreational diving, pre Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a lot of people were reluctant to even consider diving because they thought it was deep, dark and dangerous. Today, it is
just the opposite. Many have at the back of their minds the glossy pictures from the tourist magazines and they view it as simple, safe and easy. Indeed, diving takes place in a relatively weightless environment, the closest to being in outer space without actually being there. But it does require a degree of both health and stamina.
So really, what exactly is an adequate level of fitness for diving? Is it necessary to be able to do push ups with full gear on, complete with a weight belt and a tank like we used to (I miss those days!) or scale down to the not so sinister pink- dumbbells-three-times-a-week level? In determining what fitness means to you, there is no single best answer. It may mean different things to different people. The first issue to consider in evaluating your fitness level is where and what type of diving you intend to do. Obviously a shallow reef in the warm embrace of the Caribbean is quite different from the murky and cold, fast moving waters of the St Lawrence River around the wreck of RMS ‘The Empress of Ireland'.
Although this may seem obvious, it's amazing how many divers assume that their Caribbean fitness is all they need when they decide to dive wrecks in the cold waters of the Great Lakes. Even if you decide that you are only interested in relatively ‘easy' conditions and environments, things don't always go as planned. Even the best conditions can change rapidly and it is these unforeseen circumstances that cause a lot of the accidents. So regardless of your expectations, assume that once in a while Mr Murphy of Murphy's Law fame will show up around the corner and will tag along for the dive. This means that you must possess not only the level of fitness for what you normally encounter but also
a reserve, ‘money in the bank' so to say. Your health and well-being demand from you to be absolutely honest with yourself and make sure that you don't exceed the conditions that your experience and level of fitness are suitable for.
What may have been relatively easy when you started out as a novice diver years ago may have changed with the years of daily wear and tear. It is not always easy to assess and quantify your level of fitness but here are a few basic things to keep in mind.
If you can't walk around the block without a rest, diving at any level isn't something you should try or continue to engage in until you improve your conditioning. A very minimal guideline for fitness is the ability to walk a mile within 12 minutes. If you can't do
this, you should plan to start regular exercise. Regular physical exercise is one of the best ways to prevent heart disease as well.
The benefits don't just stop there. What is more interesting is that there is a direct correlation between physical fitness, VO max, body fat content and your susceptibility to Decompression Illness. I have yet to see a diver with low body fat content who is otherwise unfit. Not so much the other way. The less your body fat content, the better
your VO max, the less the chance of getting DCI. But this is a subject for a whole different article. Whether you aspire to be a Navy SEAL or are more interested in a leisurely underwater swim with the fishes, here are a few ideas about the right frequency, intensity and duration of your exercise routine.
For best cardiovascular fitness, do aerobic exercise five to seven days a week. Walking, jogging and biking are great for the outdoors. I frown upon cardio machines like treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bikes but at the same time I understand that that battered kettlebell in the corner is not for everyone. So I allow you to have a choice. And if it is at all possible, you should add swimming with fins as a regular routine.
How much is enough? You should be prepared to swim using a mask and fins for at least 200 metres comfortably at your own pace. This should be done without stopping or becoming exhausted, otherwise you have no business underwater unless you want to become another statistic. Whatever you choose, don't let your routine get boring. Do different things on different days of the week.
You have to ensure that your heart works at the correct intensity during each aerobic exercise session. The rule is to subtract your age from 220 to find your maximum heart rate in beats per minute. Your target heart rate should be from 50 to 85 percent of your age adjusted maximum BPM. In other words, multiply your maximum calculated HR by 0.5 and 0.85. When you exercise, check your HR periodically to make sure that it stays within this range.
The duration of your training session should be between 30 to 45 minutes to get the maximum cardiovascular benefit. This task may seem impossible at first so try breaking it up in two or three 15 minute intervals with a short rest between them.
If you recognise yourself as the guy at the beginning of this article, any resemblance to real people is purely and intentionally coincidental. Only the names have been changed, to protect the guilty.
It is never too late to work on your fitness and make the lifestyle changes required before you take the plunge in the water the next time.
But just in case, we are going to buy a sturdier, more robust box for the step test...
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