Whether it’s the hypnotic shimmer of light dancing off a lazy pond or the rhythmic pulse of a crashing ocean wave, water enchants like no other element. So it should come as no surprise, really, that people seek to surround and immerse themselves—figuratively and literally— in these three readily abundant atoms. And for those looking to incorporate fitness into their lives, there’s no place quite like the water, and there are few exercises more beneficial than the ones performed in a bathing suit.
“Being in the water makes people feel good,” explains John Spannuth, president and CEO of the U.S. Water Fitness Association. “I can remember a lady in her 80s [with numerous health problems] who was a water walker. She said, ‘I feel so bad, but just being in the water makes me feel so much better.’”
In addition, the physical activity that comes with aquatic exercise can actually help improve memory. Researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that for healthy seniors with intact memory (average age was 80), the risk of becoming disabled fell 7 percent for every hour spent each week being physically active. Exercise is also important for persons who already have Alzheimer’s, and experts recommend that it be continued as long as possible. The advantages of exercise for Alzheimer’s patients include improved mood, maintenance of muscle strength, and possible prevention of other diseases.
Experts contend that water exercise, also known as aquatics, provides one of the best non-impact workouts known to man, ideal for everyone from athletes to senior citizens. Because the buoyancy of water “lowers” a person’s weight by almost 90 percent, stress on joints and bones is virtually eliminated, and the added support provided by the water allows a fuller range of motion. At the same time, water exerts much more resistance than air, so the effort required during exercise in water is greater. As such, aquatics can be used to strengthen muscles, enhance cardiovascular fitness and endurance, and improve flexibility. In addition, exercise has been shown to improve cognitive functioning.
“For most people, swimming or aquatic exercise is a huge benefit because it is non-weight-bearing,” says Margot Putukian, MD, director of primary care sports medicine and team physician at Penn State University. “So, it allows them to get a good cardiovascular workout without putting a lot of pressure on their knees, ankles, and back.”
The non-impact nature of water exercise makes it ideal for people who are overweight, those who suffer from musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis, and patients trying to recover from stress fractures and other injuries. In fact, Dr. Putukian advocates aquatic work for everyone except those who suffer from osteoporosis or osteopenia, where weight-bearing exercises are often prescribed to help stimulate the body to prevent further bone loss and increase bone density.
Naturally, swimming is the activity that comes to mind when one thinks of water-based activity. Often cited as the “perfect exercise,” swimming strengthens virtually all of the major muscle groups as well as the respiratory and cardiovascular system. Plus, it’s an ideal way to shed weight and reduce body fat. For example, it’s estimated that a 150-pound person who swims at a 50-yard-per-minute pace can burn 240 calories in 30 minutes.
Water aerobics—quite simply, performing a series of rhythmic body movements and dance steps in water— are designed primarily to improve cardiovascular health. The exercises, which can be performed in waist- to chest-deep water or in deep water with flotation devices, are ideal for stroke victims and people with conditions such as arthritis, neck and back problems, and obesity. What’s more, water aerobics require more energy than land-based aerobics, accounting for a burn rate of 450 to 700 calories per hour of aerobic activity. To vary and toughen the routines, water aerobics instructors often use aqua blocks (small barbells made for the water), gyrojoggers for the hands or feet to increase resistance, kickboards, and aqua steps.
For those who prefer a more “traditional” form of exercise, experts recommend water walking or running. They offer many of the same benefits as walking or running on land, but the resistance of water makes each activity more physically taxing. Intensity can be adjusted by choosing different water levels and changing directions intermittently; however, most people walk at a level between the navel and the neck, while most water runners use a flotation device and jog in water where their feet can’t touch the pool bottom.
As with any exercise, the effectiveness of aquatics depends upon frequency, intensity, and duration. “You can’t waddle back and forth in the water and expect miracles,” Spannuth notes. For true aerobic benefits, Dr. Putukian suggests training at least three times per week, beginning with 15- to 20-minute workouts then gradually increasing duration.
“People may have difficulty with swimming or they may go up and down once or twice and be done—but that’s okay,” Dr. Putukian notes. “You can do three or four laps the first day, then rest and try another one, and so on until you eventually get to the point where you can do 20 or 25 laps without stopping.” Because aquatics are “a little more forgiving,” she also doesn’t dissuade more frequent workouts, including up to seven days a week.
So, you may ask, is swimming the perfect exercise? Perhaps—for some people. One thing’s for sure, however: People from all walks of life are discovering the physical, psychological, and social benefits of exercising in the water.
Exercising Caution in the Water
Water exercise may be right for you but not for your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. While maintaining a reasonable level of exercise is important to the overall health of Alzheimer’s patients, the type of exercise any patient engages in should be individualized to his or her abilities. You should talk with your doctor about whether exercise is right for both you and your loved one. Even if your loved one is a lifelong swimmer, you should not allow them in the water without supervision, and it might be recommended that they remain in shallow sections of the pool.
However, if your loved one is particularly fond of the water, you can create an aquatic exercise routine that the two of you can enjoy together. Something as simple as walking laps in the pool can be a soothing and physically rewarding activity for both of you.
Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Summer 2008.