Water Exercise for Seniors

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on April 12, 2002
5 min read

Blah and old. That's how Patricia Culbert of Waterbury, Conn., felt about herself at 58. "I thought, 'This is it, it's over. I'm done, and I'm not doing any more,'" she says.

The substitute high school teacher yearned for the energy of her youth, and thought that if she could only get herself to work out on a stationary bike for 15 minutes a day, she would feel better. She even promised her niece that she would do it.

Weeks passed, however, and Patricia hadn't got anywhere near the bike. She felt like she was cheating herself and her niece.

So she searched the Web for a compatible activity that she could get excited about. That's when she found the AARP's TriUmph Classic, a triathlon race for people 50 years and older. Since one person or a group of three could perform the relay event, Patricia recruited her sisters -- a twin and one two years older -- to do it with her.

Patricia ended up training for the swim portion of the relay, even though she hadn't done a lap in 18 years. The first time she stepped into the pool, she was worried. "Oh my God," she thought, "My body's not doing what I want it to do."

But she pressed on, following AARP's training recommendations of gradually increasing the number of laps she could do without stopping. Twelve weeks later, at the official relay in San Dimas, Calif., Patricia swam her best ever: 400 meters nonstop in less than 11 minutes.

Experts in fitness for older adults aren't surprised about the benefits of water exercise.

"It's clear that aqua aerobics or water-based activities provide significant benefits for older adults, including increasing metabolism," says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, PhD, head of the department of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At his former post at the University of Alabama, he led research for 15 years that looked into the effects of physical activity (both on land and in water) among older adults.

In addition to increasing metabolism, Chodzko-Zajko says physical activity in general improves cardiovascular health, increases strength, slows down age-related loss of muscle mass, and the decrease of reaction time that comes with getting older.

There are psychological and social benefits as well. People feel better about themselves, are more engaged in community activities, and they tend to not lose their independence because they're physically fit, says Chodzko-Zajko.

Bottom line, there are many reasons for older adults to "just do it."

So when a recent study came out declaring the pluses of workouts in H20, no one threw up their goggles in excitement. The research led by Nobuo Takeshima of Nagoya City University of Japan appears in the March 2002 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise.

"It didn't tell me anything I didn't already know," says Shannon Whetstone Mescher, a certified health educator and vice president of programs and services for the Arthritis Foundation (AF), who reviewed the study.

Takeshima's research found that older women who participated in regular water exercise over 12 weeks experienced more strength, flexibility, and agility, and better total cholesterol levels.

Michael E. Rogers, PhD, Takeshima's co-author and director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University in Kansas, says the difference between their research and others lies in the focus of the investigation.

Previous studies, he says, concentrated on the cardiovascular benefits and safety of swimming or aqua aerobics. "Our study combined aqua aerobics -- walking and dancing in the water -- with actual strength training in the water. The participants lifted weights while they were in the water."

On average, he says aqua exercise participants increased their strength by 27% in the quadriceps, 40% in the hamstrings, and about 10% in the upper body region.

Rogers attributes the increase in strength to the resistance that can be more easily experienced in water than on land.

If anyone has put muscle behind water fitness programs, it's the Arthritis Foundation. The organization has been hosting aquatic classes for all ages at local gyms and hospitals in the last 25 years.

"It's our most popular program," says Whetstone Mescher, who observes that many people enjoy being able to exercise and socialize with others in the pool.

For those with bone, muscle, or joint troubles, the warmth, buoyancy, and resistance of the water supposedly challenges the body while easing strain on problematic areas. "Over a period of time," she says, "people see things like a decrease in pain, improved daily function, and improved perceived quality of life."

Even people who don't have access to a local pool can enjoy these benefits. The Arthritis Foundation offers a video on how to safely and effectively exercise in a spa or a hot tub. For more information about the video and to find the nearest AF aquatic class near you, call 1-800-283-7800 or log on to www.arthritis.org.

Swimming three to four times a week has helped Patricia feel healthier and more coordinated. In the water, she doesn't feel any pain, even though she suffered a major back injury from an accident a few years before. Now almost 60 years old, she has more energy than ever, and is "having a blast" teaching high-schoolers.

Patricia plans to continue her water workouts. In fact, she's signed up for two more AARP relays with her sisters this year. The events have also given them the chance to be alone for the first time in 30 years. Last year, they were so excited about being together, they had facials and makeup done, and got uniforms for the triathlon.

The story is remarkable, but it is only one of many that show the life-changing effect of exercise.

"It's important to choose activities that you enjoy," advises Margaret Hawkins, Campaign Manager of Health for the AARP. "Search for that activity and make it a habit."

"It is never too late to introduce physical activity in life," says Chodzko-Zajko. And the AARP knows that. The oldest swimmer at one of their TriUmph Classics last year was 83.