Skip to main content
UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Checkup on Health

ladies_in_pool
Participants in aquatic exercise classes support one another and make commitment to a regular routine more likely.

Aquatic exercise is a great activity at any age

By David Cosca, M.D. 

Who needs to exercise? The answer is simple — all of us. Not long ago, doctors were reluctant to advise senior citizens or those with certain medical conditions to begin an exercise program. Now doctors are doing just that. They’re touting the benefits of exercise to people in their 80s, to those with back pain or arthritis, and even to patients with high blood pressure or heart failure. 

Study after study confirms the benefit of regular, moderate exercise for just about everyone:

  • Arthritis sufferers can gain flexibility and reduce swelling in sore joints.
  • People with moderately high blood pressure can sometimes benefit enough from exercise that they can eliminate the need for medications.
  • One study showed that patients with heart failure improved their breathing and heart rates with a program of 45 minutes of exercise three times each week.
  • Exercise can slow or even reverse the loss of strength, endurance and flexibility that usually comes with aging.
  • Exercise can improve quality of sleep, elevate mood and enhance one’s general sense of well-being.

It can also be a lifesaver. One study of previously sedentary men who became active in their 40s, 50s and 60s showed a nearly 50 percent decrease in death rates over the next 16 to 18 years, compared with their peers who stayed inactive.

Easing back into an exercise routine

People who have been sedentary for a long time often feel the pains of aging more than others. They may suffer from stiff joints, low energy and weak muscles, causing them to become more and more inactive. This vicious cycle can be stopped with slowly beginning a regular program of gentle exercise, then building up as abilities grow.

Dr. Davis Cosca"The benefits to water exercise are well documented. A regular routine can be as beneficial to the cardiovascular system as jogging or fast walking. It has also been shown to increase muscle strength, improve balance and help prevent osteoporosis."

—David Cosca, sports medicine specialist

People who have health problems or who have been sedentary for years should get a physical exam before starting an exercise program and inform their doctor of their plans. A physician may recommend a stress test if cardiovascular fitness is of concern. For some conditions such as arthritis, a few sessions with a physical therapist can help tailor exercise to fit individual needs.

Many older people have discovered that the swimming pool is a great place to start a new exercise routine. Gentle exercise in warm water is also ideal for those recovering from illness, injury, or surgery, and is perfect for the aching joints of arthritis. Even those who can’t swim can participate in aquatic exercise. You don’t even need to get your hair wet!

The benefits to water exercise are well documented. A regular routine can be as beneficial to the cardiovascular system as jogging or fast walking. It has also been shown to increase muscle strength, improve balance and help prevent osteoporosis.

Classes help create mutual support

About the author

David Cosca is a physician specializing in sports medicine. He sees patients at UC Davis Sports Medicine, 2805 J Street, Suite 300 in Sacramento. Call (916) 734-6805.

I recommend starting a program with a class in aquatic exercise, offered by many athletic clubs and community pools. When I watch these classes, I see people having a ball! The instructor creates an upbeat tone with lively music and fun conversation. Participants in these classes support one another and make commitment to a regular routine more likely.

A good instructor is qualified in water safety and leads a class that incorporates aerobics with exercises that strengthen all muscle groups, improve balance, and move joints through their full range of motion. 

Useful equipment can accompany water exercise, and is often provided free in classes:

  • Flotation devices worn around the waist support participants in deep water.
  • Kickboards, weights, water resistance devices such as paddles or webbed gloves can add variety as well as difficulty to routines.
  • Many people also like to wear water shoes to protect their feet, as walking in the pool is usually involved in routines.

Some people prefer to exercise on their own and devise their own routines. For those who monitor their heart rate, keep in mind that water pressure helps blood circulate so that the heart doesn’t need to pump as hard. Therefore, your target heart rate while exercising in water should be lower than on land, perhaps by as much as 17 beats per minute. Rather than gauge a workout by heart rate, I usually advise exercising at a level that feels like moderate exertion.

Water pressure helps blood circulate so that the heart doesn’t need to pump as hard... I usually advise exercising at a level that feels like moderate exertion. 

The Centers for Disease Control now recommend that Americans engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days. Find an exercise that you enjoy, and fit it into your daily routine.

For many seniors, the pool fits their needs well. It really is a fun, social activity that makes you feel better. Consider taking the plunge!