Is it 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour? We’ve all heard different answers to this age-old question, but which one is correct? Throughout history the debate has raged on. Was your mom right all those years, or is it just a myth after all?

Do you have to wait?

People swimming at Bondi Icebergs Club at Bondi beach, Australia
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The quick answer is no, you don’t have to wait to swim after eating. Because it’s such a widely accepted “fact,” a lot of research has been done on the subject. Despite being debunked several times over by countless research organizations, the myth of waiting to swim persists, and kids everywhere hear about it all summer long. So, for all those kids eagerly waiting to have some fun in the pool after lunch, go for it! There have been no documented cases of drowning after eating.

Where the myth came from

View of ocean from beach
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When you eat food, your body sends extra blood to the digestive system to help convert the food to energy. That is true. The myth comes from a mistaken belief that so much blood would be sent to the digestive tract that you wouldn’t be able to sufficiently power your arms and legs to stay above water. The alternative theory is that your arms and legs could use too much blood in the process of swimming and not allow enough to get to your stomach for digestion, resulting in debilitating cramps. Either way, the end result would be drowning.

The earliest written example of the myth comes from a Boy Scout handbook from 1908. It warned people to not go swimming at least 90 minutes after eating. If you did end up drowning after eating, it would be your own fault. Researchers debunked the myth, but the handbook had done its damage. The myth has survived for over a century.

Is there any truth to the myth?

A tray of food sitting next to a pool
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While it may not hinder your ability to swim, the diversion of blood flow to your digestive system after eating is true, and you could develop cramps if you’re overly active right after a meal. If you feel a cramp coming, just get out of the pool for a couple minutes. It won’t cause your arms and legs to fail entirely as once believed. You could easily power through if you’re having too much fun to leave! Your body has enough blood to run all of your body parts simultaneously, even after a large meal.

If you want to keep telling your kids to relax for 30 minutes after eating just for some peace and quiet, that’s okay. Nobody will tell on you. Go ahead and make it the Boy Scout’s suggested 90 minutes if you like. But if your kids remain persistent, there’s no issue with letting them jump in right after lunch.

For exercising purposes

Swimmers competing in a race
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Eating is the way you fuel your body. When you eat, it takes at least two to three hours for the food to be fully digested and turned into energy. If you decide to hop into the pool right after lunch, it won’t hinder your ability to swim, but it also won’t allow enough time for your body to provide the maximum amount of energy possible. If you are swimming as a part of your exercise routine, maybe you should wait before doing your laps, or any other workout for that matter.

More important than when or what you eat is how much water you drink. Swimming is an intense cardiovascular activity that makes you sweat. You might not realize how much you’re sweating because you’re in the water. Dehydration, unlike muscle cramps, can absolutely cause you to drown if you’re not careful. Always drink plenty of water before and during any strenuous physical activities whether it’s for exercise or play.