Benefits of Swimming for Seniors

Written by: Angela Stringfellow

Whee!! Pool season can be the best time of year

Whee! Pool season can be the best time of year!

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Every year as winter fades into the buds of spring, the world remembers the joys of summer – blue skies and juicy watermelon and, of course, lazy afternoons by the pool.

Humans are inextricably drawn to water: we love beaches and boardwalks and boats and lighthouses. There's something romantic and indulgent and just plain wonderful about being near, on, or in the water. The ocean, a lake, a pool, or the shower – water feels good. And we feel good when we're in the water.

For many families, a swimming pool is a coveted and much loved addition to the backyard. And for many seniors, a swimming pool provides not only recreation, but also a place to exercise without pain. And, of course, a pool is a great way to entice the grandkids to come over everyday!

A swimming pool is also one of a homeowner's greatest responsibilities. From families who live with seniors to seniors who live alone, it's important to respect standard safety procedures and precautions for your swimming pool. This guide will help you have fun in the water while showing you how to make your backyard a safe haven for the entire family.

Health Benefits of Swimming for Seniors

There are many benefits to swimming, but beyond the pleasure afforded by aquatic recreation, a dip in the pool also has many health benefits – especially for seniors. Check out these top 9 health reasons everyone 60+ should take a regular swim:

  1. Swimming reduces the risk of osteoporosis: Post-menopausal women are at serious risk for decreased bone density. Guess what? Swimming can actually improve bone mineral density (BMD).
  2. Swimming can be strength training: Combining swimming with weights, as with water aerobics, is one of the safest and best forms of strength training, which has been shown to help seniors maintain their weight, restore balance (and thus reduce falls), sleep better, and reduce the risks and symptoms of arthritis, diabetes, back pain, depression and other maladies.
  3. Swimming makes for a healthy heart: Swimming improves cardiovascular health and endurance, lowering blood pressure, improving circulation, and reducing the risk of heart and lung disease.
  4. Swimming boosts brain function: Neuroscientists and physiologists have found that exercise benefits mental acuity.
  5. Swimming is easy on the joints: For anyone who suffers from joint pain, low-impact exercise, like swimming, is an ideal form of exercise.
  6. Swimming tones muscles: Water is about twelve times denser than air, so while swimming is a low-impact workout, it's still an excellent form of exercise: swimming provides plenty of joint-friendly resistance to strengthen senior muscles – and carries a very low risk of injury, to boot.
  7. Swimming reduces stress: Swimming is a great way to release tension and stress.
  8. Swimming increases flexibility: If you think flexibility is for the young, think again. Swimming aids flexibility in the hips, neck, arms and legs, thus improving posture, reducing soreness, and helping alleviate back pain.
  9. Swimming improves quality of life: So simple, but true: studies show that swimming and water exercise actually boosts quality of life.

Section Resources:

6 Reasons Why Swimming is Great Exercise for Seniors

Study: The water exercise improves health-related quality of life of frail elderly people at day service facility

Study: The effect of a water exercise program on bone density of postmenopausal women

Strength Training for Seniors

How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain

Swimming Tips for Seniors

Swimming has incredible rewards, especially for swimmers in their golden years. Even if you ignore the health studies and medical jargon, the heart of the matter is that swimming is just plain fun.

It's no surprise that swimming pools have become more and more common across the country, from your local fitness center to retirement communities to your own backyard. Before you dip into the nearest pool, follow these simple tips to stay healthy and ensure your safety (or that of a senior loved one):

  1. Talk to your doctor: Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise for seniors, but you should always get your doctor's approval before you begin any new exercise routine.
  2. Ease into new waters: Rocky sea bottoms, shallow deep ends or even a loose pool tile can spell trouble if you're in a rush. Always ease into unfamiliar waters.
  3. Start slow: You may have swum the English Channel when you were 20, but if you haven't done any serious swimming in the last year or two, ease into it. Your doctor (see tip #1) can likely recommend a good beginner's swimming routine, but if you take matters into your own hands, be sure to give yourself time to build endurance and strength.
  4. Swim with a buddy: Remember the buddy system from your long-ago swim lessons? The same still applies. Swimming is always safer with a friend.
  5. Respect your limits: Don't push yourself to swim longer, faster or harder than your body can. And don't try to keep up with your swim buddy, either. Recognize and respect your own limitations.
  6. Invest in a medical alert system: A waterproof, emergency medical alert pendant follows you into the shower, the bath and the pool. If you fall, get dizzy, or feel weak, help is just a button-press away.

Now that we've talked safety, let's move on to leisure. Swimming is one of life's great pleasures: when you're in the water, you're almost weightless. You can flip and float, chat with friends, or play a game – the pool is the perfect place for friendship and fun. Here are a few tips to make the most of your swim time:

Swimming supports 90% of your body weight, making it less painful than other workouts

Swimming supports 90% of your body weight, making it less painful than other workouts

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What's your favorite swim stroke?

What's your favorite swim stroke?

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Improve movement in the pool

Improve movement in the pool

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  1. Find a pool near you: There are only two requirements for swimming: water and a bathing suit. Don't choose the pool that's simply the closest to your home; rather, try to find a pool that has the amenities you'll enjoy: adult swim times, senior classes, dedicated lap lanes, a schedule that fits yours, etc.
  2. Sign up for classes: Speaking of amenities, your pool's class offering is important. At many pools, classes go beyond the basic swim lessons to include water aerobics, recreational water polo, synchronized swimming, and more. Look for classes that will get you excited to get in the pool.
  3. Recruit your friends: Swimming is more fun with friends, so talk yours into signing up for a class with you.
  4. Make new friends: There are many social benefits to swimming, and one is the opportunity to meet people with similar interests. Chat up your fellow swimmers and when you connect, invite them out for a smoothie after your class or laps.
  5. Bring the family: Whether you swim at the local community center or in your own backyard, invite your family. Your grandkids – even the normally surly ones – will have a blast splashing and shooting water guns at their grandparents.
  6. Have fun!: Swimming is good exercise. It's good for your health. It's good for your social skills. But most of all, swimming is fun. So go and have some. If you find you're not enjoying what you're doing, switch it up. Take a new class. Hop in the hot tub. Swap indoor for outdoor. Play a game. Do whatever it is that makes you happy in the pool.

Staying Safe: Protecting Seniors from Water-Related Injuries

Children and seniors are the most at risk for fatal drownings

Children and seniors are the most at risk for fatal drownings

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Pool Safety: Be Safe. Be Secure. Be Alert. Be Ready.

Pool Safety: Be Safe. Be Secure. Be Alert. Be Ready.

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The benefits and joys of water exercise and swimming are many, especially when you take precautions to keep swimmers safe at a home pool. Basic safeguards, like non-slip flooring and first-aid kits, help keep your pool area safe – so you, your family and friends can enjoy worry-free water fun.

Let's get the scary stats out of the way: drowning and water-related injuries are a risk around any kind of water. Between 2005 and 2009 in the U.S. alone, there were about 10 deaths a day from drowning, with children and seniors constituting the highest-risk age groups.

Of course, not all water-related injuries lead to death. That said, non-fatal injuries can still be serious and more than 50% of near-drowning victims will be hospitalized. The good news? Keeping your swimming pool safe is a matter of enacting a few simple, easy and inexpensive safety precautions.

Section Resources:

Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts

Stay Safe In and Around Swimming Pools

It's the Law: Legal Obligations for Home Swimming Pools in the U.S.

Owning a pool is a big responsibility. Luckily, governments have a vested interest in public safety and have thus created lists of legal requirements and recommendations for any home swimming pool owner. Note that in most cases, these requirements apply to both in-ground and above ground swimming pools.

In the United States, local building codes, statues and regulations vary by state. In almost every state, these requirements extend to pool fencing laws (generally, fences must be 4+ feet tall) and other safety basics. Check with your local authorities for details about specific state and county requirements.

Local, state and federal governments around the world publish comprehensive, free resources about pool safety – legal obligations and general recommendations. In the U.S., the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) publishes a free guide to Safety Barrier Guidelines for Home Pools (PDF). The American Red Cross offers a thorough, free manual on Swimming and Water Safety (PDF). The CPSC also maintains a website completely dedicated to safe swimming practices. For visual learners, the CPSC also publishes a swimming safety video series, which includes tutorials like the Simple Steps to Safer Pools and the Guide to Compliance With the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.

Section Resources:

Safety Barrier Guidelines for Home Pools (PDF)

Red Cross Guide to Swimming and Water Safety (PDF)

CPSC's Pool Safely Website (also available en espaρol)

Simple Steps to Safer Pools

Guide to Compliance With the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act

Creating a Safe Swimming Pool Environment

The first step to take toward swimming and pool safety is simply identifying potential problems in and around your swimming pool – and taking action to remedy each.

Swim authorities, like Swim Ireland (PDF), recommend that home swimming pool owners, especially those with children and/or senior loved ones, should carry out a comprehensive assessment of potential issues. This evaluation consists of five basic steps:

  1. Identify any problem areas
  2. Determine who will use the pool
  3. Assess the risk
  4. Implement safety precautions
  5. Conduct regular safety reviews (and remedy any problems)

Following this five-step assessment at regular intervals will keep your loved ones, and swimming area, safe. So let's talk details.

Basic safety equipment and smart pool rules keep your family safe

Basic safety equipment and smart pool rules keep your family safe

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Step 1: Identify Potential Problems

Take a look around your pool and use your imagination: the key to this step is in identifying preventable swimming and pool hazards – issues you can control. Here are several to consider, but keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list:

  • Maintenance issues, like unbalanced chemicals or dirty filters/traps
  • Slippery or cracked tiles
  • Ungrounded electrical equipment and/or outlets
  • Poorly maintained aboveground pool elements, such as support beams
  • Damaged or degrading pool covers

Step 2: Identify Who Will Use Your Pool

Who swims (or will swim) in your pool? Think of friends, family and acquaintances – and especially of aging pool goers.

When it comes to pool safety, seniors require special consideration. For example, many seniors suffer from compromised balance: it's easier for them to slip and fall into the pool. Additionally, many medications commonly prescribed to the elderly cause dizziness, memory issues, and other concerns that affect pool safety.

Family members with dementia, Alzheimer's or memory problems are also at increased risk. And don't forget, elderly swimmers may contend with decreased muscle mass, poor cardiovascular health, reduced flexibility and other factors that affect their stamina and physical ability.

Step 3: Assess Preventable Risks

In most cases, actual swimming risks are due to risky behavior, negligence and/or failure to act. These may include:

  • Careless Behavior: Even if a senior loved one has been a strong swimmer since childhood, s/he can still get into trouble at the pool due the risk factors described in step #2.
  • Not Learning to Swim: For anyone who will regularly be around a home swimming pool, swimming lessons are absolutely necessary.
  • Lack of Supervision: If you have elderly parents or other family in your home, do not let them go out to the pool alone.
  • Alcohol Use: Responsible alcohol consumption pairs well with many things (like cheese), but swimming is not one of them.

Step 4: Take Action to Prevent Swimming Accidents

Prevention is arguably the most important element to keeping your pool safe for seniors. This is where simple, basic safety precautions – fencing, rescue devices, swimming lessons, and supervision, for example – come into play. Luckily, this is also the element over which you have total control: you can create a safe, pleasurable pool environment that the whole family will enjoy.

Here are some solid, easy-to-enact tips for swimming pool safety:

  • Fencing: Four-sided pool fencing has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of drowning in children. This safety precaution can save the seniors who live with you, preventing adults with Alzheimer's or dementia, or those with mobility problems, from heading out to the pool alone.
  • Swimming Education: Anyone who lives near, or who spends significant time around a pool, should learn to swim. (Awesome fact: Formal swim lessons reduce a child's risk of drowning by 88%. Those same lessons also help seniors.) Adult swim lessons have grown increasingly popular, so seniors can attend age-appropriate classes while they make friends.
  • Rescue Gear: Life jackets, life preservers (rescue donuts), floatation devices and other gear make your pool safe. Your rescue equipment should always include a sturdy, lightweight pole (at least 10-12 feet long), a ring buoy with line, and a cell phone with 911 capabilities.
  • Chemical Storage: Always keep your pool chemicals locked away, out of reach of friends, family and pets.
  • Provide Supervision: If your aged loved ones suffer from any sort of physical or mental issues, such as dementia or poor balance, always accompany them during pool time.
  • Respect the Weather: This is an obvious point, but never go swimming during a lightening storm. Moreover, exit the pool and swimming area at the first rumble of thunder.
  • Enforce Pool Rules: Everyone should follow basic pool rules, like no running. Even though seniors are unlikely to break the rules, they may be victim of another's actions. (Example: A running child trips a senior, who falls into the pool.)
  • Install an Alarm: A motion-sensor alarm warns you that someone is out at the pool. This is especially useful if you have a family member suffering from dementia or other memory issues.
  • Don't Swim When Tired: Seniors tire more quickly than their younger counterparts, and exhaustion can lead to accidents. Put the kibosh on swimming while over-tired.
  • Learn First Aid & CPR: One of the best things you can do for your family and friends is learn basic first aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). In the case of drowning, immediate CPR can lower the risk of brain damage and improve other outcomes of water-related injury.
  • Teach 911: Teach young children about calling for help if they ever see a child or adult having difficulty in the pool. Be sure to teach kids to dial 9-1-1 – how to dial and what to say – and encourage them to do so if it's ever necessary. (State explicitly, "If someone needs help, you'll never get in trouble for calling the police.")
  • Get Homeowner's Insurance: Be sure to get a homeowner's policy that covers your pool.
  • Bonus Tip – Wear Sunscreen: Always wear high-grade sunblock when out at the pool.

Step 5: Conduct Regular Re-assessments of Swimming Safety

Set a schedule to re-assess pool safety and the efficacy of your preventive measures. Things change: tree branches grow out over the pool, outlets short-circuit, and safety gear needs replaced. Keep a schedule – every three or six months should do it – to thoroughly review your pool maintenance and ensure swimming safety for the seniors in your life.

At every reassessment, you should also check all pool elements (filters, tile, ladders, diving boards, etc.) to ensure that everything is in proper working condition. At least once a year, schedule a professional pool inspection to make sure all electrical systems meet code.

Section Resources:

American Red Cross: Swim Safety

Swimming Pool Safety Guidelines

Study: Pool fencing for preventing drowning in children

Association between swimming lessons and drowning in childhood: a case-control study.

Effect of immediate resuscitation on children with submersion injury.

 

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