Why Swimming May Be the Best Exercise for Older Adults

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Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, sidestroke, and freestyle.

From childhood summers playing “Marco Polo” or getting your Red Cross swim badge at summer camp, swimming has many positive associations for Canadians.

A relaxing and joyful pastime, swimming has also been called the perfect exercise.  Impact free and buoyant friendly, being submerged in water can be beneficial to people across a broad range of ages and abilities: the very young to the very old, those with injuries or degenerative conditions, beginner to fitness buffs.

The benefits of swimming are numerous, significant, and undeniable. So, grab your goggles and let’s dive into the reasons why.

Why Swimming is So Good for You

Relaxing in the pool at La Gappe, QC

We all know there are many advantages to exercising. Yet for older adults with mobility or health challenges, exercise can seem like a distant memory from their youth.

As you age, some types of physical activity can become hard on your body. The good news is that swimming – a sport that many seniors find enjoyable – has many health benefits. It’s an excellent way to stay fit, active, and engaged. Need convincing?

Much lauded by physicians, physical therapists, and fitness coaches alike, swimming has the potential to circumvent many of the barriers to exercise encountered by older adults.

The most cited barriers to exercise are:

  • Pain
  • Decreased endurance and balance
  • Increased recovery time
  • Risk of injury
  • Fear of falling

Water exercises are an ideal medium for aging adults, helping them to get moving in a way that is comfortable and functional.  Here are just a few ways that swimming not only benefits seniors but even helps address their exercise concerns.

1. Water Takes the Weight Off Your Joints

6 senior women standing in a circle and holding hands in a swimming pool
Auburn Heights residence, Calgary AB

You may have heard the term “low-impact” exercise. This simply refers to any exercise that does not exert a jarring force on your joints. When swimming, around 90% of your body weight is supported by the water, so you will float through your exercise session without putting pressure on your joints. The relatively weightless environment and support from the water can help people overcome painful movement caused by arthritic and other health conditions. Making it an ideal exercise for seniors.

2. Give Your Heart a Workout

As with any form of cardiovascular exercise, you reap significant benefits to your long-term health by swimming regularly. A stronger heart pumps blood more efficiently, meaning improved circulation throughout your body (even your brain!). Regular aerobic activities like swimming have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

3. Swimming is Brain Healthy

Just immersing yourself in water increases blood flow to the brain. This improves memory, mood, concentration, and cognitive function in general. Swimming may also help repair damage from stress and forge new neural connections in the brain.

In a small study looking at the impact of swimming on mental acuity in the elderly, researchers concluded that the swimmers had improved mental speed and attention compared with non-swimmers.

4. Increased Flexibility and Range of Motion

Do you feel stiff when you wake up in the morning?  If so, you are not alone. Most people lose some range of motion as they get older. Good news! The buoyancy of water allows swimmers to move their limbs more easily through the full range of motion. Doing so regularly helps keep your joints supple and improves flexibility, an important factor in older adults’ health and well-being. For aging people with a limited range of motion on land, stretching in the water is a good way to improve flexibility.

5. Built-in Resistance for Improved Muscle Strength and Tone

Fox Hollow Water aerobics, London, ON

Going for a dip in the pool will cool you off on a hot day, but it is also a full body exercise that tones every major muscle group in your body. Each stroke focuses on different muscle groups, so using a combination of strokes when swimming will allow you to feel the burn — and get the tone you want — faster than many land-based exercises.

6. The Secret Solution to Menopause

As it turns out, swimming helps with menopausal brain fog by boosting your brain power, increasing alertness, clarity, and energy levels, and releasing endorphins (happy hormones). One study shows swimming also helps maintain bone density in postmenopausal women.  Water exercise also helps women cope with changes to metabolism, improves circulation, and increases sleep quality.

7. Improves Stability, Reducing Risk of Falls

Swimming works all major muscle groups, resulting in stronger muscles overall, especially the upper body, core muscles, and leg muscles – all important for posture and stability, which reduces the risk of falls. An Australian study evaluated 1,700 men age 70 and older and found that those who swam were 33% less likely to fall compared to men who did not swim.

What’s more, men who participated in other forms of exercise in addition to swimming (such as golfing or using treadmills or stationary bikes) were no less likely to fall compared to those who only participated in swimming.

8. Swimming is Good for the Spirit 

While we swim, almost all the senses are engaged: sight, sound, touch, and smell (and sometimes taste!). The rhythmic repetition of strokes and breath creates an anchor that soothes the spirit. Feeling the water moving over our body creates a massage-like sensation. The calm and quiet alleviates stress and encourages relaxation and even creativity. In short, swimming is a form of mindfulness that can release built-up tension.

9. Bonus: it supports your back!

You don’t have to worry about the weight of your body on your spine or your posture when you move your body through water. If you’re not a swimmer, you can still use the water for gentle exercise: do some walking workouts waist-deep in a swimming pool to take the pressure off your joints and back while still getting movement.

Water-Based Activities in Retirement Living

Group of seniors talking and laughing, sitting at the edge of a pool dangling their feet in the water
Socializing by the pool at Sage Hill

More and more seniors are finding aquatic exercise to be their favorite and most beneficial way to maintain fitness.

At many of our senior retirement living communities, indoor heated pools offer residents an alternative to land-based exercise.  Our regularly scheduled aquatic programs include aqua aerobics, lap swimming, open swim, senior aquacize, water walking, water games.

In addition to aquatics, our wellness initiatives include fitness centers featuring top-of-the-line cardiovascular and strength-training equipment, as well as free weights. Our trained staff help residents familiarize themselves with the equipment as they seek to improve balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health.

If you think you may be interested in moving to a retirement community with a pool and gym, visit us to tour our amazing fitness facilities. Our senior living options and amenities are available to residents of our independent residential community as well as those receiving supported care services.

Writer  – Julianna McLeod

Julianna is a health and wellness expert at All Seniors Care. Her mission is to create content that empowers seniors to form sustainable solutions for lasting health and happiness. She is an experienced writer, editor, and Recreational Therapist living in Toronto.

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