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The Many Benefits Of Aquatic Exercise For The Young And Elderly

by Dr. L. Voigt Smith, PT DPT CredMDT




Though Wisconsin is blessed with the extensive outdoor natural beauty of lakes, rivers, and parks, it’s hard to enjoy these many of these settings in the winter, especially as the body ages. However, many towns and hotels offer indoor pool facilities—and a pool is a great way to get that necessary exercise when the outdoor temperatures get chilly.


Aquatics Therapy

In spite of extensive research showing broad benefits of using aquatics therapy for acute and chronic injuries, it remains underutilized as a treatment modality [1]. Water therapy can benefit individuals with musculoskeletal and neurological disorders. For many suffering with restrictive pain, it allows improved exercise potential.


With the aging process, regular exercise becomes increasingly important. A Meta-Analysis Study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation showed exercise training results in improved health, related physical fitness, and cognitive function, even for those with dementia [2].


Ancient Healing Secret

Water therapy has been recognized for its healing potential for hundreds of years. The profession of physical therapy initially evolved largely due to the polio epidemic, and aquatic therapy was often the treatment of choice for this disease. For older adults with arthritis, aquatic exercise has been shown to reduce disability, improve functional fitness and improve strength [3]. It seems the unique properties of water foster significant exercise benefits to both the mind and body.


One of these water properties is hydrostatic pressure (the pressure water exerts on the body at any given depth), which reduces edema with immersion. Research has shown the effects of water immersion have significantly improved dependent edema and subjective pain symptoms in patients with varicose veins [4].


Buoyancy is a second aquatic property which significantly unloads immersed joints. Approximately 50% of body weight is unloaded when an individual is in water up to their navel often eliminating joint pain with exercise.


The viscosity involved with aquatic exercise is yet another property which is conducive to good rehab. As an individual pushes harder against water, viscous resistance increases, allowing an individual to increase or decrease resistance with exercise, as tolerated.


Barriers

With all the great benefits and advantages of pool exercise and therapy, one may ask why is it so often underutilized? As a doctor of physical therapy who has treated hundreds of patients in the water, the biggest barrier I have found clinically is vanity. A typical response I get from patients I know would benefit is, “Only God sees me in as swimsuit!” Often this mindset can be diffused with proper education and by having individuals watch others (with similar challenges) exercise and share the benefits they have received.


Increased socialization can be another perk of water exercise. It can be great fun and a wonderful way to make new friends. For many with limited tolerance for land-based exercises due to chronic pain, the water environment can provide hope, encouragement and enjoyment for better health and function.


Often a physical therapist skilled in aquatic therapy can be a great asset in helping reduce fears and optimizing functional outcomes with an individualized, graded exercise program. Many towns and cities have YMCA community-based pool programs available. Often local hotels also offer pool memberships at very reasonable rates.


Water exercise and therapy has a tremendous amount to offer. It just may be the ticket you need to improve your quality of life. This winter, consider getting more active by making some waves at the pool!


1. Becker B, American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehab, 2009; 2. Heyn, Patricia, 2004; 3. Suomi R, Ach Phys Med Rehabil 2003; 4. Ernst, S, 1991.

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