As we launch into the start of a New Year, Nick Lyon urges divers to take a good, hard look at their body shape and level of fitness, and take action to get ‘fit to dive’
Photographs courtesy of Nick Lyon
Have you ever performed a rescue? Not in training, I mean for real. If not, you need to know that the genuine article is rather different from a simulation. A few years ago, during a dive near Plymouth, my buddy became unresponsive during the descent. At 16m, she rolled over and began to sink, unconscious. I caught up with her just above the 24m seabed and performed a controlled buoyant lift to the surface. She was recovered to the boat and was soon in A+E which, by a stroke of luck, was staffed by doctors recently trained at the Diving Disease Research Centre (DDRC) just next door. She was diagnosed with dysbaric vertigo (only one ear clearing) and sent home. It’s worth also pointing out that we got married the following year. That’s important because it’s quite likely that my adrenal glands have rarely worked harder than they did that day, and I was left utterly drained.
That rescue involved hardly any swimming and no surface tow, yet I was left feeling as if I’d run a marathon with a fridge on my back (not that I ever have). Rescue is a very tiring business. That was in 2008, I was a regular runner and gym user and worked hard to retain the fitness I built for an earlier polar expedition, yet a couple of minutes bobbing about in Plymouth Sound had done me in.
Fast forward to 2020. As I gazed around the busy hall at the GO Diving show, a random thought entered my head and I shared it with Scuba Diver editor-in-chief Mark Evans. “How many of the people in this room could rescue themselves, let alone their buddy?” To be brutal, there was not an elephant in the room, there was a sizeable herd, and I was one of them. This isn’t about ‘fat shaming’, this is a genuine concern about many divers’ ability to save a life, either their own or that of their buddy.
Many of us will have noticed that regular diving improves various specific aspects of our fitness. As the dive season moves forward, that cylinder isn’t so heavy, our gas consumption drops, a bit of tide is less of a hindrance. But the reserves required to see us through a rescue are more difficult to build. That’s not say, however, that we can’t meet that demand halfway.
I’m not suggesting for one moment a regime of dragging tyres across Dartmoor in order to be safe to have a 15m bimble in Vobster. But we have to admit that quite a few of us have let ourselves go somewhat. As a diving industry professional, I’ve seen some rather stark examples of this.
Take, for instance, the diver who, when fully kitted, exceeded the maximum weight limit of the boat’s dive lift. This feat didn’t occur spontaneously. He had already demonstrated his ‘discovery’ that by cutting a scone into three, rather than in half, he could get more butter into it…
While standing in for the boat’s chef, I witnessed what I can only describe as a bucket of chips disappear into a modest number of divers in under a minute. And the consumption of solid calories is not the only issue. There is, of course, a long-standing tradition of the après dive beer. Or two… I have witnessed a diver from Scandinavia relieving his lunchtime thirst with a whole bottle of prosecco, before kitting up and jumping back in. A while back, I dived with an accomplished diver who would plan his weekend trips according to how hungover he anticipated he would be. He died tragically young.
But you don’t have to take my anecdotal claims for this wobbly state of affairs. The previously mentioned DDRC have been looking at this issue for 30 years. In their 1990 survey into weight and health in divers, they found that 34 percent of the participants were overweight or obese. By 2019, that figure had risen to a sobering 69 percent. Of course, this is not just a problem affecting divers, and these figures are very much in line with national trends. Of particular significance is the fact that the British figure is now the same as the American one, so the US no longer leads the world in the obesity stakes.
Then there’s smoking. I’m still astounded when I see divers smoking before kitting up. Without meaning to preach, it’s a really bad idea.
All this is compounded by another factor – we’re not getting any younger. We are seeing an increase in the mean age of the average diver, and fitness has a tendency to decrease with age.
Since the obesity rates among divers are now the same as those in society as a whole, this points to the inevitable conclusion that divers are doing little, if anything, to reverse it. The question then arises, what should we do about this?
Taking the last point first, there’s little we can do about ageing, and if there was, I’d be running a clinic providing it, probably in the Caribbean. I’m nearing my 40th year of diving. I wasn’t a child when I started and I’m not ready to hang up my fins yet. Having said that, I take my age into account when planning dives and that includes deciding not to dive at all. If I do dive, my times, depths and mixes reflect my longevity.
As for my general fitness (or lack of it), my wake-up call came, of all places, on the Aberdeen to Shetland ferry. My cabin happened to feature a large, well-illuminated mirror, and as I checked out my Adonis score on the way to the shower, I was horrified to see that something had gone terribly wrong with where my muscles used to be.
I have no intention of masquerading as a personal trainer and how you approach fitness is entirely a matter for you. What I will say is that my dog’s walkies became quite a bit longer, which he was happy about. I re-joined the gym and alternated workouts for strength and cardiac fitness. I was never a great consumer of junk food, but I looked more carefully at balancing my diet and practicing portion control. I didn’t have a beer belly, but it was certainly a Merlot mound and I cut back on wine consumption.
Fat loss can be tricky to quantify, particularly when weight training, as muscle weighs more than fat. So, rather than relying on the bathroom scales, I used the fit of clothes as an indicator of progress. I’m by no means where I need to be yet, but I have a pile of trousers that would be too risky to wear in public for fear of indecent exposure.
In case you’d forgotten your early training, the only way to abuse your physiology more than taking it diving is to put it into outer space. That fact makes me realise that throwing an unnecessarily unfit body into the depths is asking for trouble.
Not all incidents end happily. I’ve dealt with the worst possible outcome to a diving accident and I can assure you that it’s heart-breaking. I can no longer, in all conscience, ignore the need for better fitness, for my own sake and that of my buddy.