When I was at school, there was a poster on the wall. I remember it vividly. It was split into two pictures: one was of a guy in running kit, lying on his back at the end of a race and looking like he was about to pass on to the Great Athletics Track in the Sky. The other was of an older man sculling his way happily through a bright blue swimming pool.
“It doesn’t have to be hell to be healthy,” the caption read.
Swimming has long been one of the recommended forms of exercise for seniors – others include walking, gardening and (thankfully!) sexual activity. Out of all of them (the latter isn’t included in this part of course!) the best all-rounder is found in the pool, where you can work your muscles and your cardiovascular system together without putting a strain on either.
There are two basic forms of exercise – aerobic (often referred to as “cardio”) and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise is anything that gets an increased level of oxygen into your blood. Anaerobic exercise has a fairly complicated scientific definition, but it’s basically anything where you have to hold your breath in order to complete the exercise movement – straining to lift a weight, for example.
Anaerobic exercise builds muscle mass but doesn’t make you any fitter. Aerobic exercise can burn fat, is capable of changing the way your body metabolises (among other things) cholesterol, and may instil increased energy levels over a period of time.
But here’s the thing. In order to do aerobic exercise effectively, you need to do a little anaerobic exercise as well. The stronger your muscles are, the better equipped your body is to do the aerobic exercise – the stuff that gets your heart stronger and your lungs working properly.
Normally, any exercise program contains elements of muscle building as well as cardiovascular exercise, for this very reason. So you’ll be asked to do a little light weight training (don’t be too alarmed – any repetitive exercise with any weight, even if it’s only a bag of flour, is technically weight training) or some yoga to complement your aerobics class or your dance workout.
Swimming is unique amongst all forms of exercise, in that it gives you both anaerobic and aerobic benefits at the same time. When your head’s underwater you can’t breathe – and so when you swim, your body alternates between the non-fat burning but effective muscle building of anaerobic exercise; and the hyper-fat burning of cardiovascular training.
Swimming is also great for seniors suffering from mild arthritic pain, or any form of common muscular and joint stiffness. The water supports the body, freeing up the muscles that hurt; and the exercise, which is zero impact, strengthens the muscles around the pain sites to alleviate some of the strain when you are out of the water.
Any movement you make in a swimming pool is a form of resistance training. Water is heavier than air, so just moving through it gives your body the ideal workout – really gentle, but effective nonetheless. To rehabilitate mild injuries, or to strengthen limbs and joints with non danger of injury, simply walk in a shallow pool whilst gently moving your arms backwards and forwards. This easy motion will exercise your core, your limbs and your chest while at the same time increasing your heart rate and breathing.
If you have any existing physical problems, consult your doctor or physio before you start swimming. There are rare instances in which even this form of exercise may not be for you. For the most part, though, swimming is the ideal rehabilitation exercise as well as a great way to get fit and stay fit.
Useful resources for senior swimmers:
ABC News – Jane Katz shares exercise techniques.
Swimming Information – specifically for adults.