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Dive In! -- Aquatic Therapy for People With Disabilities

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.

Additional Information/Resources:




  • Swimming for People With Disabilities; Association of Swimming Therapy (1992); London: Bedford Row Publishing.



  • Watsu: Freeing the Body in Water; Dull, H. (1993); Harbin Springs publishing.



Internet Sites

Shepherd Center in Atlanta is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in the care of people with spinal cord injury and disease, acquired brain injury, multiple sclerosis, and other neuromuscular disorders and urological problems. The Center houses the largest model spinal cord injury program in the country, the largest brain injury rehabilitation program in Georgia, and an official Multiple Sclerosis Center, designated by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society-Georgia Society. Serving the Southeast since 1975, the 100-bed specialty hospital offers a continuum of health care services, from intensive care through rehabilitation, transitional care, day program, and outpatient services.


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