Swimming Could Prevent Falls! Protective Benefits for Seniors

Dr. Rein Tideiksaar - July 20, 2015 11:00 AM

Everybody knows that swimming is a great form of exercise. But did you know that swimming can also help prevent falls? A recent report highlights the importance of swimming in lowering the risk of falls. The types of exercises performed by a large group of older men were compared with their likelihood of experiencing a fall. The men who swam on a regular basis were less likely to suffer a fall. They also performed better on tests of ‘standing balance’ compared with non-swimmers. Standing balance was tested by measuring how much a person moves when asked to stand as still as possible for 30 seconds. Although the findings only included men, the authors noted that it is likely that swimming also lowers a women's risk of falls.

Swimming helps improve balance by: 
•    Developing strong and stable core muscles (stomach muscles and those muscles around your trunk and pelvis) that are necessary for good balance control.

•    Producing coordinated movement of both arms and legs while swimming. This improves the ability to walk safely.

•    Maintaining higher brain functions (swimmers experience very little decline in the speed with which the brain tells muscles what to do).

•    Increasing stamina, heart and lung function, muscle tone and hip/knee flexibility.

Other protective benefits of swimming include:
•    Lowering Diabetes Risk: Swimming regularly improves blood sugar control; avoiding periods of sugar becoming too low or high.

•    Improved Mental Health: Swimming improves one’s mood and reduces periods of stress and anxiety.  Furthermore, swimming in public pools or with friends and family creates situations for elders to be social and avoid feelings of isolation or loneliness.

•    Reduced Risk of Osteoporosis: After the age of 50, a third of women and a fifth of men experience a fracture because of osteoporosis (weak bone strength). Swimming, with its constant need for muscle action, can therefore help with bone strength. Still, swimmers also need some weight-bearing activity to protect their bones.

•    Long Life: Swimmers have a 50 percent lower death rate than runners, walkers, or those people  who don’t exercise at all.

Swimming can be enjoyed regardless of age or infirmity, and it is especially ideal for those with arthritis or knee or hip joints worn down by decades of weight-bearing activities. But even if you have health problems that prohibit swimming or can’t swim, exercising in the water allows people to do exercises that are difficult on land. Why?

•    No pounding or jarring. For people with arthritis, musculoskeletal, or weight limitations, water is low impact. It provides body with buoyancy, so that the person isn’t hitting the floor as hard as they would on land. Therefore one attains the benefits of exercise without the joint strain and pain.

•    There is continual resistance to every move you make. Water offers more resistance than when you exercise on land. Also, water resistance does not allow for sudden body movements that can cause injury. The resistance offered by water increases the workload on muscles thereby assisting in preventing muscle loss in much the same way as weight training. This is an excellent way to build up arm and leg strength.

•    Water disperses heat more efficiently, so there is less chance of overheating.  The water continuously cools the body.  Exercise in the water is cooler and more comfortable than it is on land.

Water Exercise Options
Any person at any age can start swimming laps up and down the pool (as little as 20 minutes, 3 times a week can have a positive health effect). However, for those non-swimmers there are a host of good water exercises to choose from:

•    Walking: Moving forward, backward, and sideward, using regular, short, quick, or long steps, in waist-deep or chest-deep water.

•    Aerobics: Full body rhythmic exercises performed in shallow and/or deep water for 20 minutes or more. These exercises are designed to provide heart healthy benefits.

•    Strength Training: Quick arm and leg movements in the water are a form of resistance training that can help build muscle strength and endurance. Water exercise equipment is sometimes used to build up resistance.

•    Balance Training: Aquatic exercise is a great way to combat loss of balance. Water that is at least waist deep allows a person to build strength and work on balance. This is especially a safe way to work on coordination as the buoyancy of water will prevent a person from falling.

•    Running:  Simulating land running in the water depth where the feet do not touch the bottom of the pool.  Sometimes flotation devices are used. 

The bottom line: Swimming is an excellent exercise that helps avoid falling and works every body part and muscle without causing strain on your body.  In fact, you can swim almost every day without risking injury. [Full Disclosure: I swim one mile everyday] So, everyone in the pool!

Many community gyms and YMCA’s have swimming pools and offer a variety of aquatic exercise programs. But before people dive in, they should check with their doctor. Swimming and working out in the water isn't for everyone. Certain health conditions can make this type of workout harmful to seniors. For example, people with heart and breathing disorders may experience difficulty exercising in deep water.

Rein Tideiksaar Ph.D., PA-C (or Dr Rein as he is commonly referred to) is the president of FallPrevent, LLC, Blackwood, NJ, a consulting company that provides educational, legal and marketing services related to fall prevention in the elderly. Dr Tideiksaar is a gerontologist (health care professional who specializes in working with elderly patients) and a geriatric physician's assistant. He has been active in the area of fall prevention for over 30 years, and has directed numerous research projects on falls and has developed fall prevention programs in the community, assisted living, home care, acute care hospital, and nursing facility setting. To learn more, check out the Doctor’s professional profile on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/dr-rein/6/759/592. If you have any questions about preventing falls, please feel free to email Dr. Tideiksaar at drrein@verizon.net.

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