Beneath the Surface: Aquatic Exercise for the Elderly


"I'd go down, right now, and go surfing—if I had someone to help me get back out."

These are the words of 75-year-old Margo Bouer, a former nurse who recognizes the strength and importance of her connection with the water.

For her, the water means temporary relief from the shaking and nausea caused by Multiple Sclerosis.

Many seniors, like Bouer, find working out in the water an excellent way to improve their overall well-being, while getting relief from symptoms associated with senior health conditions such as arthritis, joint disease and circulatory problems. The low impact nature of aquatic exercise can be a boon if, like Bouer, you suffer from chronic medical conditions.

At home in her fluid refuge, Bouer is a member of the Aquadettes, a seniors-only synchronized swimming team based out of Laguna Woods Village, a retirement community in in Orange County, California. With ages ranging from early 60s to upper 80s, the Aquadettes serve as an embodiment of the healing power of aquatic exercise for the elderly. The Aquadettes were the subject of a recent documentary that examined the healing power of this elderly synchronized swimming group.

The Benefits

While weight loss and cardiovascular exercise are common benefits of any type of exercise, moving while partially or fully-submerged in the water offers some distinct advantages that set these forms of exercise apart from land-based activity. And, the buoyancy factor makes swimming and water exercise among the most injury-free sports, making it a good exercise choice for most seniors.

Water Workouts for the Elderly

  1. Blood Pumper: It doesn't matter if a senior is water-jogging, taking a water warrior class, or swimming—using the water to get their heart rate up will increase aerobic capacity, burn fat, and decrease their risk for heart disease.
  2. Balance Enhancer: Aging limbs and slowly worsening vision can cause an older person to lose coordination and increase their risk of falling. Aquatic exercise is a great way to combat this loss of balance. Water that is at least waist deep will allow an elderly person to build strength and work on their by fighting against turbulent waves and currents. This is an especially safe way to cultivate coordination as water-induced buoyancy will prevent them from falling.
  3. Strength Builder: Trying to make quick arm and leg movements in the water is a form of resistance training that can help build muscle strength and endurance.

Dr. Bartlo also points out that age-related joint pain often inhibits an older person's ability to exercise on dry land. But, she says that, working out in the water puts significantly less stress on joints, allowing them to exercise pain-free for longer periods of time.

Social Kick

Socialization is an oft-forgotten, but integral benefit of many types of physical activity, and aquatic exercise is no exception.

Research suggests that socialization is one of the key motivators compelling elderly people to begin and maintain an exercise program.

The opportunities for socialization during a water workout are practically endless. Group exercise classes provide an ideal opportunity to gab, and even lap swimming can be made conversation-friendly.

For example, seniors could take a page out of the competitive swimming handbook and engage in the practice of "social kick." Social kick represents a period of time during practice when swimmers use kickboards to kick side-by-side so that they can exercise while chit-chatting.

Check with the Doctor Before Diving In

Despite its many advantages, working out in the water isn't for everyone.

Dr. Bartlo implores anyone who is considering starting a new aquatic exercise regimen to consult with their doctor first, as certain medical conditions can make this type of workout harmful to seniors.

For example, people with high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and breathing disorders like emphysema and asthma, should not exercise in water that goes past their waist. Deeper water can increase the pressure placed on a person's cardiovascular system, making it harder to breathe and causing their blood pressure to rise.

A New Age of Water Exercise

  • Water Yoga: Traditional poses performed in shoulder-deep water
  • Ai Chi: Combines T'ai Chi, Quigong and Shiatsu into a single water workout
  • Water Pilates: Customary Pilates movements modified for use in the water

Living to 90 and Beyond

With studies touting the role of physical fitness in disease prevention coming out daily, it's more important than ever that seniors remain physically active.

But, whether it's synchronized swimming, water yoga, or simply aqua-jogging, perhaps the most potent benefit of an exercise program is the goal.

For seniors with chronic diseases, goal-setting may seem fruitless.

Bouer puts it like this, "It's hard to know what the next goal should be, other than staying alive." She points out that living for going to the doctor is not really living at all.

Perhaps the answer lies with Bouer and her fellow Aquadettes. For them, staying alive while maintaining their physical fitness may help them realize a very unique goal. When they turn 90 years old, each Aquadette is offered the opportunity to perform a solo during the group's yearly performance—a tradition that celebrates not just survival, but purposeful longevity.

"I've got to remember that I want to do those things. Because, if you don't want to do any of these things, then where is life?"

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I think it's fabulous that there are these options available to those with chronic health conditions and the elderly population. It's so important for them to stay active, and having an aquatic option to relieve joint pressure and pain is integral to their health.
I don't think socialization in a pool should be encouraged. It can easily take over completely and make the pool unusable for people trying to exercise. I mean that. I found one pool where all the elderly people stood yakking in a band right across the pool, dividing the shallow end from the deeper end totally. That's all they did - just yakked for an entire hour, blocking the pool for exercising and swimming.

I encourage socializing after being in the pool. Why not go to a coffee shop to talk afterwards? But just being in a pool is not exercise. You have to actually do the exercises or swim to get the benefit and many people are not doing anything, just yakking and making it hard to impossible for others to exercise.

I often ask people out for coffee when I see this constant standing around yakking. I have never so far had a positive answer. There is never time. I have found water exercise hugely helpful for myself and have invented some exercises just for my particular body. So having my exercise program sabotaged by people treating an expensive installation like a swimming pool as a coffee shop is very frustrating. We exercisers are usually outnumbered by the yakkers ten to one at least and the lifeguards are not helpful.