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The Health and Wellness Benefits of Water Aerobics for Older Adults

As you get older, exercise can help you stay mobile, independent and healthy. It can lower your risk of chronic diseases, improve your mental health and enhance your quality of life. But lots of older people don’t get the physical activity they need.

“Physical activity is essential to healthy aging,” said Anna White, a physical therapist with Banner Physical Therapy. “Well-rounded exercise routines for older adults will include regular aerobic exercise, as well as strength training and balance and flexibility activities as needed.” 

You may not be getting the exercise you need because:

  • Aches and pains make it uncomfortable.
  • You haven’t been active in a long time, so exercising is hard.
  • You’re afraid of falling when you exercise.

Even if you haven’t been in a pool in years, you might want to consider water aerobics. “The properties of water make it a good environment for older adults to exercise comfortably and confidently,” White said.

What is water aerobics?

Water aerobics, also called aquatic exercise, is a range of low-impact movements and exercises, usually done in the shallow end of a pool. It can include aerobic movements, strength training, flexibility exercises and even balance and coordination work. So it can give you everything you need from exercise.

The water supports you so that you can get the benefits of exercise without as much strain on your body. It can be a great option if you have joint pain, arthritis or mobility issues.

“There are a lot of different types of aquatic exercise equipment on the market: floating belts,
life jackets, pool noodles, buoys, foam dumbbells, paddles, fins, drag swimsuits, gloves and more,” White said. 

“You might think of floaties as making water activities easier, but many can be used to make a water-based workout program a lot harder. As you get more comfortable in the water, you can try these devices to give yourself more variety and challenge with your exercise.”

What are the benefits?

“Aquatic exercise can provide all the same benefits as land-based exercise programs,” White said. Regular physical activity can help:

  • Improve your strength, endurance and fitness.
  • Increase your confidence.
  • Promote brain health and reduce the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Reduce your risk of developing certain chronic health problems, like cardiovascular disease, which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure. It can also reduce the likelihood of existing problems like these getting worse. 
  • Reduce your risk of certain cancers.
  • Decrease stress.
  • Improve sleep quality.
  • Help to manage weight.
  • Reduce your risk of falls and of injury if you fall.

Exercising in the water also adds a few benefits:

  • Buoyancy lowers the impact on your joints and lets you move more freely and confidently. It reduces your risk of falling and protects you if you lose your balance. It allows you to do stretching and range-of-motion activities that might be too challenging on land. 
  • The pressure of the water against your body (hydrostatic pressure) reduces swelling and inflammation, increases blood flow to the muscles and improves your aerobic capacity.
  • Resistance helps you burn more calories and strengthen your muscles. It allows you to improve stability, balance and coordination.

What are the risks?

Talk to your health care provider about your health and how water aerobics might fit in. Generally, it’s a good option for lots of people. There are a few downsides, though:

  • You’ll need to tolerate the temperature and chemicals in the pool.
  • “Exercises in the water will not translate to our on-land lives as well as land-based training — we live on land,” White said.

How to get started

Many community centers, gyms and recreational centers have water aerobics classes designed for seniors or labeled “gentle” or “low impact.” They are usually led by certified instructors who guide you through a series of routines. “Water aerobics classes are often very social and provide a great opportunity to meet people and build friendships,” White said.

These tips can help you be ready for your first class:

  • You’ll want to wear comfortable swimwear and you may want water shoes. Bring a towel and use sunscreen if your class is outdoors. 
  • Start slowly and increase your intensity as your fitness improves. “Just like with any other exercise program, the frequency and duration of your workouts, the intensity of your training sessions and the number of sets and reps you perform will all depend on your goals and have a direct effect on what you get out of your workouts,” White said.
  • Listen to your body, and don’t push yourself too hard, especially at first. Modify your movements and take breaks as needed.
  • Stay hydrated. “Even though you may not be able to tell, you do still sweat in the pool,” White said. 

If you can’t find a class near you but you have access to a pool, you can try water aerobics on your own. “Start in waist- to chest-deep water,” White said. You can:

  • Walk or march forward, backward and sideways.
  • Do lunges.
  • Balance on one leg or with your feet heel to toe.
  • Do push-ups on the pool edge.
  • Make bicycle movements with your legs, using a noodle behind you for support.
  • Raise your arms to the surface of the water and lower them.
  • Straighten each leg and lift it to the front, side and back.

The bottom line

If you’re an older adult and you’re not getting the physical activity you need, consider trying water aerobics. It supports your body, it’s easier on your joints and it can give you everything you need from exercise.

If you would like help finding a class near you or you want to know more about getting started with water aerobics, contact a Banner Health expert for advice and support.

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