You’ve heard it before and you’ll surely hear it again: exercise is one of the best ways for older adults—or, anyone for that matter—to stay mentally and physically healthy. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that older adults engage in some form of moderate aerobic activity at least 5 days a week for half an hour each day. They also suggest adding to that 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise 3 times a week.
No doubt, that’s a fair bit of physical activity to squeeze into one’s schedule. But aside from time issues, your loved one might also have trouble exercising that much because of past injuries or joint problems. Decreased mobility and range of motion can prevent older adults from enjoying the sports and physical activities they used to love. That’s why it’s so important to find exercises that are both fun and comfortable for your loved one to engage in. If you see that your loved one is struggling to get enough weekly exercise, water-based activities offer a potential long-term solution for staying fit.
The Benefits of Exercising in Water
Water activities come with a slew of valuable benefits. Being in water allows one’s body to be fully supported—this eliminates the risk of falls, as well as relieves pressure on joints. Older adults are able to experience better range of motion, increased flexibility, and less pain. And since water naturally cools the body’s temperature, your loved one won’t overheat during exercise, either. Water also offers built-in resistance (12 times more than air) which increases the efficacy of exercise, whether during strength training or aerobic activity. One study conducted by Dr. Jane Katz showed that aquacise study participants were found to have “increased their strength by 27% in the quadriceps, 40% in the hamstrings, and about 10% in the upper body region.”
Exercising in water is also known to improve arthritis, circulation, and balance in older adults. Your aging loved one will feel more relaxed, gain muscle strength, and cardio fitness. Additionally, researcher and professor Dr. Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko at the University of Illinois shares that participating in water activities “slows down age-related loss of muscle mass, and the decrease of reaction time that comes with getting older.” Happily, there are plenty of ways to incorporate water sports into your loved one’s regular routine to ensure they’re soaking up the benefits.
As we grow older, strength training only becomes more important. It’s critical to help maintain balance, control glucose, and improve bone density in older adults. But lifting heaving weights in the gym can be hard on your loved one’s joints. They can risk injury if their form is off, and it requires a fair amount of mental concentration to execute lifts properly. On the other hand, strength training in a pool uses water’s natural resistance for a much gentler and relaxing experience. Your loved one can build muscle by doing simple exercises like swimming, water walking, or jogging—these can be done in shallow or deep water by using a floatation belt. Less stressful on your loved one’s body, strength training in water offers them a way to build muscle safely in a therapeutic environment.
If your loved one is looking for a more social experience, check out what aquatic classes for seniors are offered by local community centers or fitness centers. There’s a huge range of water-based classes available, including martial arts, aerobics, ballet, tai chi, and dance. These are particularly suited to older adults who might have previously enjoyed aerobics on land, but have had to stop due to injury or mobility issues. Aqua aerobics classes are not only extremely gentle on the joints, but the choreographed movements give the brain a good workout, too. They’re also great for meeting new people, listening to music, and having fun. Your loved one can tailor the level of difficulty by using styrofoam dumbbells to add extra resistance.
Beginning a Water Exercise Program
If your aging loved one is just starting out with water-based activities, run the idea past their doctor first, and accompany them to the pool during their initial sessions. Once you’re at the pool, there are some other tips and considerations to keep in mind:
- Keep the pool time limited to about 15 minutes to begin with—given a bit of time to adapt to water activities, that time can quickly increase to 45 minutes.
- Try to develop a healthy routine that involves stretching on land before and after going in the pool, and drinking lots of water—it’s easy to get dehydrated from swimming without realizing it.
- Appropriate equipment like a properly fitting suit, nose and ear plugs, bathing cap, and goggles can make the experience more comfortable for your loved one.
- For older adults with joint issues or arthritis, keep in mind that the ideal pool temperature is around 85-90 degrees.
Water activities are something to be embraced year-round. During the summer, you and your loved one can head to an outdoor pool or lake to soak up the sun and bask in nature. Through the colder seasons, simply relocate to an indoor pool and continue their exercise routine. Spending an afternoon at the local pool is also a great family activity that everyone can partake in. Enjoying time in the water will undoubtedly raise your loved one’s fitness level, engage their mind, and help them feel more energized about life overall.
If you want to explore more activities for your aging loved one, Institute on Aging has plenty of excellent resources and programs to support aging in place. Get in touch today to learn more about how we can help.