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Dive In! -- Aquatic Therapy for People With Disabilities

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Getting Started

Whether taking a class or working independently, talk with your doctor about starting an exercise program. Shepherd Center aquatic therapists also recommend the following:

  • Look for a community pool that is easy to get in and out of. Many public pools have lifts or ramps with handrails for greater accessibility. If not, ask if a portable lift can be added.
  • Check the water temperature. For people with MS, cooler is better -- 78-82? F is ideal for exercise, but warmer temps of 85-86? F degrees are fine for stretching. For people with spinal cord injuries who may get chilled easily, warmer water -- 92-94? F -- is best.
  • Start slowly. Try exercising or stretching for 15-20 minute sessions, until your body gets used to it. Remember, it?s easy to over exert yourself in the water.
  • Never exercise to the point of pain.
  • Drink plenty of water after exercising.

Exercise Options

Any movement that provides resistance against the water is good for stretching and strengthening muscles. Shepherd Center recommends the following exercise options:

  • Swim laps, using a ski belt around the hips (if necessary for floatation) and hand paddles for added resistance. An inflatable collar can also help keep water out of the face.
  • In shallow water, use foam dumbbells to help build upper-body strength, or ankle weights to strengthen leg muscles.
  • Wear lightweight webbed gloves for added resistance in the water.
  • For people with disabilities, practice doing transfers from chair to pool deck to pool or on pool steps.
  • Exercise arm and leg muscles in deep water using an inner tube or "noodles" under arms.

If you need a more structured exercise program, aquatic classes are available at many community and fitness centers. Examples of classes to look for, include:

  • Watsu -- a therapeutic relaxation technique where the therapist moves the participant through the water. The movement allows for complete relaxation and can be very beneficial for people with disabilities and for those who experience chronic pain.
  • Ai Chi -- similar to Tai Chi but it?s done in the water, using a combination of deep breathing and slow broad movements.
  • Water yoga -- Using the same concepts as yoga on land, water yoga is designed to relieve stress, but movements help build internal energy and strength. Techniques are also designed to help with balance, flexibility, and coordination.
  • Low impact aquatic classes -- provide an aerobic workout and strength training without putting pressure on joints.

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