Everywhere you look, it seems someone is touting the benefits of physical activity for seniors. Maintaining physical fitness and overall health means improved balance, better management of chronic disease, such as diabetes, improved cardiovascular health (which in turn lessens the chance of cardiovascular disease), and many other benefits that contribute to well-being as we grow older. Regular exercise can even help you sleep better, reduce stress and anxiety, and, of course, help to promote healthy weight management.
But aging, over time, contributes to a loss of muscle tone, painful joints, and other effects that make exercising a not-so-pleasant experience for some older adults. While plenty of exercises offer modifications that make the activity more bearable for people with physical limitations, swimming, in particular, is ideal for older adults. Here's a look at the benefits of swimming, water aerobics and aquatic therapy for seniors.
Swimming is Easy on the Joints
One of the most common complaints from older adults is aching joints, due to arthritis or even normal wear and tear from years of high-impact activities, whether on the job or through recreational activities. High-impact exercise consists of activities such as running, jogging, and plyometrics—activities that involve your body (your feet, particularly) repeatedly coming into contact with the ground. These types of activities are quite stressful on the joints, which can contribute to increased aches and pains both now and in the future.
Swimming, on the other hand, is a low-impact exercise. Note that impact and intensity are not the same thing, meaning you can get just as much of a workout and reap the same benefits from low-impact activities; it's just a different type of movement. When you swim or participate in water aerobics, your body weight is partially supported by the water, so there's less weight and strain on your ankles, knees, hips and back.
Swimming Can Lead to Increased Flexibility
Many seniors are able to gain flexibility and increase their range of motion while exercising in the water, thanks in part to the buoyancy effect of water, which supports some of the body's weight. The motions you make while swimming not only increase muscle strength and tone, but lengthens your muscles and limbs in a similar fashion to yoga.
Swimming Improves Quality of Life
For many people, there's just something calming and relaxing about water. Spending time in the pool, lake, or pond isn't only good for your body; it offers mental health benefits as well, such as reducing stress and anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, "Water-based exercise improves mental health. Swimming can improve mood in both men and women. For people with fibromyalgia, it can decrease anxiety and exercise therapy in warm water can decrease depression and improve mood."
Additionally, swimming offers benefits for pregnant mothers and their unborn children, as well as social and familial benefits for children with developmental disabilities. In other words, swimming is a social activity with built-in health benefits, and an activity seniors can participate in with their children, grandchildren, and other family and friends, with benefits for all.
Swimming Offers Benefits for Bone Health
Any physical activity, particularly weight-bearing exercises, will help to improve bone density and bone strength, an important consideration for older adults. Post-menopausal women, in particular, have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.
"After the age of 50, a third of women and a fifth of men experience a fracture because of osteoporosis, or chronic reduction in bone quality and density. While bone density naturally decreases with age, the risk of osteoporosis is lowest among those who exercise regularly. By swimming, seniors can better preserve bone density and fight osteoporosis," according to the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
Swimming Offers Cardio and Strength Training in One
Swimming will raise your heart rate, offering cardiovascular benefits by increasing blood flow, boosting your metabolism, and increasing your energy. And because water offers some resistance while you move your body through it, whether you're taking a traditional or leisurely swim or participating in organized water aerobics, you're getting strength training benefits at the same time. This will help to improve muscle tone and overall strength and balance, reducing your risk of falls as you age and boosting your cardiovascular and respiratory health.
Of course, it's always wise to talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program or physical activity to make sure you don't have any underlying health concerns that would pose a risk. But for many seniors, swimming is a fun and social activity offering both physical and mental health benefits.