The Bay Area is a product of water. Tectonic forces shaped our peaceful harbor, protecting it from the crashing Pacific. Every day we feel the presence of water, in the fog or the smell of salt, or if we venture toward the sea on a weekend stroll, the waves crashing against the rocks in an affirmative spray.
We understand, intuitively, that we’re here—in life, as a species, and in the Bay Area—because of water. But for older adults, water can also be a way to extend life, to make it better both physically and mentally. Swimming and other aquatic activities are among the best things an aging adult can do to stay healthy. They’re relaxing and challenging, they can be group-oriented, or enjoyed in the space of one’s own quiet mind and active body.
As life-giving as water is, it isn’t our natural habitat. Our desire to conquer it—to sail across endless dark oceans or swim through the chop of the bay or just walk the length of a pool—is a testament to the spirit of humanity. We don’t take no for an answer. And, for older adults, taking up swimming and other water activities are the same. They’re a way to not accept the falsity that aging means the end of enjoyable activities. If you enjoyed swimming in your youth, you don’t need to stop now if you don’t want to. There’s no “too old.” There’s only you, indivisible.
So Much More Than Physical
There are a lot of reasons why swimming is considered one of the best forms of exercise for older adults, and really for everyone. Water offers natural resistance so working in it, whether swimming or walking, increases strength without risking the dangers of weight lifting. It’s a natural way to practice resistance training. Some of the top benefits of water exercise include:
- Less risk of falling: In an Australian study, men over 70 who were regular swimmers had a 33% smaller risk of falling than their peers. Falling, of course, is exceedingly dangerous and can lead to lifelong physical and mental health issues. The reason why experts believe swimming is so good for you is that it forces you to create your own balance. In the water, even standing requires some effort, and floating or treading makes you more aware of space, training your body to stay in the right position.
- Builds strength: It isn’t just about balance, of course. You’re also building strength. Being in the water gives every muscle group a workout. You need arms, legs, hips, knees, elbows—everything. It’s a complete routine with every step or stroke. And yet, it’s still…
- Easy on the joints: Some workouts put a lot of pressure on hips and knees, especially ones that involve weights or high-impact movements. Swimming isn’t like that; it’s non-weight-bearing. You get all the benefits without having to jump up and down on aging and achy joints.
- Improves heart health: Your heart gets stronger when you work out in the water. It gets larger, giving you more endurance and your whole cardiovascular system more power. You can lower your blood pressure, increase circulation, and decrease your chances of numerous diseases.
All this comes with remarkable benefits for mental health as well. Being stronger, being less concerned about falling, and feeling more able to meet challenges can reduce isolation and depression.
Not only that, but taking classes or having a regular exercise session can establish a routine, which is important in creating a sense of purpose, something we often miss after retirement or the death of a partner or friends. Good solid exercise can also help combat insomnia, a wretched condition which wreaks havoc on our mental health and especially plagues older adults.
Finally, just getting out with people can do wonders. Meeting new friends is always a part of life. There’s no age limit. And the site Bay Area Older Adults has a really helpful list of swim classes for people in the Bay Area. Find one near you!
Water Exercises That Gently Challenge Aging Adults
Ready to dive in? Here are some great pool exercises for older adults of any physical level:
- Swimming: Find a stroke that works for you. And remember that swim lessons aren’t just for youth. Your local pool may offer group or individual lessons with an instructor if you need to brush up on your backstroke or butterfly. But be comfortable. This isn’t about Phelpsing it up out there. It’s about getting your exercise.
- Water walking or jogging: This doesn’t have to be very complex. Be sure to pick up your knees while taking your steps, lifting them against the gentle weightless resistance of the water. You can also jog or walk in place, as long as you keep up a good pace.
- Push-ups: Don’t go to the floor of the pool for these. Instead, hold onto the side and push yourself out, then pull yourself in—like a horizontal push-up. This builds great strength in the arms and chest.
- Kickboard: Grab onto a kickboard and pump your legs. A steady rhythm jumps up the heart rate without being too strenuous. If you don’t have a kickboard, you can just hold on to the side of the pool.
- Simple stretching: Stretching your arms, hips, legs, back, or whatever else in the pool is akin to doing so with tension-strength rubber bands, but without the risk of them snapping.
It doesn’t matter if you want a lane to yourself to breaststroke back and forth, racing against your own mind, or you want to do pushups while chatting with a friend. Both are wonderful forms of exercise for older adults, and will help keep you physically and mentally fit.
Being in the pool isn’t just for younger people. Choosing how you want to exercise has no timer on it. If the water appeals to you, find a place to swim, and dip your toe in. Life, no matter how old you are, is about exploring, and finding what makes your days better. It’s about that great cannonball that sends everyone shrieking in splash-soaked joy. So go ahead. Take that plunge, tomorrow and always.
At Institute on Aging, we promote healthy and independent lifestyles for older adults, balancing physical, mental, and emotional well-being for our aging loved ones and their families. To learn more about our programs, please connect with us today.