Researchers have long known that exercise is an important tool for anyone of any age aiming to stay healthy and fit. Although people sometimes put gym visits on the back burner because of time constraints or simple lack of motivation, older people who deal with conditions that cause pain or limit mobility are up against another obstacle.

Common age-related problems such as arthritis and osteoporosis can make movement difficult—if every time you lace up your sneakers you end up in pain, it can be all too easy to abandon workouts completely.

The good news is that there's a kinder, gentler way to improve cardiovascular and muscular strength: Water-based workouts are among the best exercise programs for older adults.

Engaging in water exercise offers a host of benefits while preventing the stress and discomfort of land-based sports. The exercises, similar to those you do on land, are performed vertically in shallow water that ranges from waist to chest deep; you don't need to know how to swim to participate. Because water buoys joints and muscles, there's a significant reduction in impact and stress on the body as well as a reduced risk of falling.

Measurable benefits

Recent studies demonstrate that water exercise has a measurable impact on functional fitness and quality of life for middle-aged and older participants. Research published in January 2013 in Geriatrics & Gerontology International examined 28 obese women between ages 60 and 75 who participated in thrice-weekly water workouts.

At the end of 12 weeks, participants were found to have increased their skeletal muscle strength. They also had increased their aerobic capacity as measured by the time it took them to walk about half a mile. This improvement in functional fitness went hand in hand with participants' reports of greater psychological well-being and better quality of life.

Another small study, appearing in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science in August 2013, examined the role of water exercise in improving balance while walking. Having good balance is important to maintaining health, as accidental falls are a significant cause of injury and death among older people.

In this case, 15 women (average age, 70) were divided into experimental and control groups and tested for flexibility, agility, muscle strength and balance. One segment of the study involved having each subject stroll down a walkway, a part of which would then open up randomly and cause the subject to fall 10 centimeters. An overhead harness to prevent injury supported each subject, and researchers could safely measure how quickly each person recovered from his or her stumble.

Those who had engaged in a three-times-a-week program of aqua aerobics over a period of 12 weeks developed enough leg strength to allow greater knee and ankle movement—and a quicker recovery from the stumble—than those in the control group.

A flexibility enhancer

Water exercise can enhance flexibility, too. As reported in Biomedical Human Kinetics in November, Hungarian scientists assigned 54 men and women (average age, 66) to groups who did either Pilates or aqua fitness three times a week or to a control group assigned no formal exercise. After six months, both the Pilates and the aqua-fitness groups saw a variety of measurable physical improvements, including lower-body strength and flexibility, upper-body strength, balance and aerobic capacity. But only the aqua-fitness participants experienced improved shoulder flexibility as measured by the ability to reach various parts of their own backs.

Perhaps one of the few limitations of a water-based exercise program is that it hasn’t been shown to be a reliable way to slim down. In the study of 28 obese women, none had any measurable reduction in body weight, body fat percentage, fat and lean body mass or body measurements despite gains in functional fitness and quality of life. Neither did the participants in the Pilates/water-exercise study become trimmer.

People in the study that tested balance while walking, however, did demonstrate lower body weight and lower body fat after engaging in a regular program of water exercise, suggesting that there may be other factors at play when it comes to exercise and weight loss; larger, longer studies are needed.

Getting started

Look for a formal water-activity class led by certified fitness instructors; check with your local YMCA or community center. Many health clubs and fitness facilities offer aqua-based programs, some designed specifically for older adults.

A good water-exercise class should include a warm-up, cardiovascular and muscle conditioning and a stretching-based cool down. Some classes use floatation devices, such as buoyant dumbbells or foam noodles. Wear a comfortable, supportive swimsuit, trunks or exercise attire and invest in aquatic shoes for stability and to protect your feet from rough pool surfaces and fungal infections like athlete's foot. (Pool shoes are a must if you have diabetes.)

While many people prefer the social atmosphere of a group class, you can do water workouts on your own. But always work out with a partner for safety and check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50; Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 16 Jun 2014

Last Modified: 16 Jun 2014