Many a day at the beach has devolved into a waterlogged temper tantrum after a reluctant parent is forced to tell their child, eager to return to the water, that they need to wait an hour before swimming after lunch. “But whyyyyyyyy?,” demands the child. Maybe the parent blames the rule on stomach cramps or a heightened risk of drowning. Or maybe they fire back the classic standby, “Because I said so.” But at 35 years old, I’m finally old enough to push back against those dead ends without fear of punishment and ask, no really, why must you wait an hour to swim after eating?
The reasoning for the one-hour delay on swimming post-mealtime is pseudoscience likely passed down by well-intentioned parents and grandparents who first read about it in child-rearing books from the 1960s. But you need to travel back in time much further than that to find the first published mention of the rule. The original 1908 edition of the book Scouting for Boys includes this passage:
“First, there is the danger of cramp. If you bathe within an hour and a half after taking a meal, that is, before your food is digested, you are very likely to get cramp. Cramp doubles you up in extreme pain so that you cannot move your arms or legs – and down you go. You may drown – and it will be your own fault.”
You hear that? An hour and a half! A full 90 minutes docked on dry land. But what was the logic behind these death-inducing swim cramps? The thinking of the day was that a whopping 80% of your body’s energy was diverted to digestion after a meal is consumed, leaving you with precious few reserves for critical thinking, let alone swimming laps. If you forced your body into a fight-or-flight scenario in the ocean – or pool or lake – your digestive system could freeze up without the proper energy, causing a painful stomach cramp that threatened to tank you straight to the bottom of the sea.
Turn-of-the-century doctors reminded skeptical parents about the intense discomfort of a charley horse, a muscle spasm generally restricted to the legs or feet. Imagine that sharp pain, but in your gut. How would your child ever manage to swim through such a pain?
The post-lunch swimming delay ruled as a bit of accepted common sense for some 50-plus years, enshrined as fact as one generation passed it down to the next. But in 1961, exercise physiologist Arthur Steinhaus published a dissenting opinion in the Journal of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, arguing that life-threatening stomach cramps were simply not rooted in any sort of science. But before the decade closed out, the 1968 Julie Andrews film Star doubled down on the rule, with a character in one scene turning down an invitation to swim with the line, “It hasn’t been an hour since lunch.”
In the 110 years since Scouting for Boys first popularized the 90-minute wait rule, there have been few, if any published reports of deaths attributed to drowning by way of swimming after eating. But studies in 1989 and 1990 on deaths by drowning in Washington and California, respectively, found hard evidence of a less spoken about threat related to swimming. In the Washington State study, a quarter of all adolescent drowning deaths were found to have been attributed to alcohol intoxication. In California, the number was even higher, with 41% of adolescent drowning deaths linked to consuming alcohol beforehand.
So will eating before a swim be the death of you or your kids? It’s unlikely. But drowning while drunk, unsurprisingly in retrospect, is a very real threat backed up by far too many statistics each year. While there’s certainly no harm – even if there’s no real point – in parents insisting their children pause for a bit after eating, those same worrywarts would be wise to talk to their older children about the dangers lurking below the surface of the water when alcohol is involved. Eating and swimming won’t kill you, it turns out, but drinking and swimming could.