Maintaining fitness is a significant challenge for many seniors living in Cincinnati. That’s especially true for older people with reduced physical flexibility; who have chronic back, neck, or joint pain; who have reduced mobility; or who are obese.
Most geriatricians and family doctors recommend that seniors incorporate a regular program of light to moderate exercise in order to preserve mobility and promote overall wellness. At the same time, for seniors with mobility issues, most types of exercise come with an increased risk of fall-related injuries.
Most, but not all. At least one study has suggested that swimming may actually reduce the incidence of fall-related injuries for older people.
Swimming may help seniors to become better balancers
According to Karen Rowan, Health Editor for Livescience, researchers in Australia studied 1,700 men ages 70 and older and recorded the types of exercise those men did over a four-year period. They also recorded the number of fall-related injuries those men suffered over the same four-year period.
Over the length of the study, 2,700 falls were incurred by the participating men. But when scientists plotted those fall incidents against the exercise types the men engaged in, they noticed that the men who regularly swam were 33 percent less likely to fall compared to the at-large group of study participants.
“In contrast, the men who did other forms of exercise — including golfing, doing calisthenics, working out on treadmills or stationary bikes, or playing lawn bowling games (similar to Bocce ball) — were no less likely to fall, the researchers found,” Rowan reported.
The reason for this may lie in the fact that swimmers must continually balance and orient themselves in the three-dimensional water space. This is accomplished subconsciously by the brain’s motor centers. But it requires more fine adjustments to balance and orient for someone in water than it does for someone moving through less-dense air.
The Australian researchers postulated that the senior men who regularly swam in a sense became better programmed to balance themselves than senior men who did not swim regularly.
The researchers, Rowan reported, “found that the swimmers did better on a test of ‘postural sway,’ compared with the average of all men in the study. In this test of standing balance, a person is asked to stand as still as possible for 30 seconds, and researchers measure how much his or her body moves, at the waist level, from the center position.”
The swimmers swayed less. They were better balanced and more coordinated than their non-swimming peers. While it’s not clear if regular swimming is indeed the cause of better overall balance, there was certainly a correlation between the two.
Swimming is a low-impact, high-energy exercise
For seniors with limited mobility or chronic pain, high-impact activities like running or jogging may be out of the question. Each time a runner or jogger’s foot lands on the ground, a shockwave travels up through the leg, which can aggravate painful joints and cause additional inflammation.
For obese and out-of-shape people, running causes even more impact on the lower joints. The additional weight of excess fat, or of tissue that isn’t well-supported by strong muscles, creates large downward shock forces that can aggravate the lower back, hips, knees and ankles.
Swimming, on the other hand, allows a person’s weight to be well-supported by the water. It takes some of the strain off muscles and joints and allows freer movement. In a sense, the water works against gravity. That’s why water calisthenics and water aerobics are so popular with seniors of limited mobility.
Moreover, swimming burns a lot of calories. It takes quite a bit more aerobic energy to propel yourself through dense water than it does to walk through air. At the same time, the higher resistance of the water helps muscles to become more conditioned through isometric exercise.
Swimming can also help seniors recovering from procedures such as knee or hip surgeries, said Jim Fisk III, wellness director at Episcopal Retirement Services.
“It’s an incredible tool to help them trust their repaired joints and gain full weight bearing,” he said.
Swimming can help improve mental health
Swimming not only has physical benefits, Fisk said.
“Just getting in there and relaxing, splashing around and having fun creates an incredible opportunity for social wellness and an opportunity to de-stress,” he said.
Incorporate swimming into your senior wellness plan this summer!
If you’ve been looking for a way to stay fit and flexible, swimming may be one of your best options. Consider joining your local YMCA or swim club. Many local gyms also have pools. And many offer water aerobics and water calisthenics classes.
Here at Deupree House, our residents enjoy our indoor pool for both recreational purposes and for fitness. We host regular water fitness classes and encourage our residents to come join in.
Need a way to cool off and stay limber this summer? Dive on in with a regular swimming or water fitness program!