Why swimming is good for older people

Swimming is a widely popular sport and recreational exercise. No wonder, for it can be a fun, effective and affordable workout.

But there is more - the activity can improve one's health, which makes it ideal for older people.

It helps to keep chronic ailments such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension at bay, said Mr Carl Bradford, associate sport physiologist at Singapore Sports Institute.

Swimming is also a great option for people with joint pain, which tends to crop up as we age. There is less impact on the joints, compared with activities like running, and leads to less muscle soreness.

Older people who find that their balance is getting poorer - which puts them at risk of falls when they do land-based sports - can turn to swimming, too.

"Exercise in water provides a great alternative for those who may not have the balance or strength for other activities like walking, running or cycling," Mr Bradford said.

Also, while immersed, the water pressure causes fluid to move between body cells.

"This will increase your blood volume, which can reduce cardiovascular stress by leading to a lower exercising heart rate," he said.

However, one should realise that ageing affects the physical ability of the body. Therefore, older swimmers may wish to take note of the following points, as outlined by Mr Bradford.

DON'T FORGET TO STRETCH

The joints' range of motion, which is important when doing swim strokes, is often reduced as we get older. Stretching or mobility exercises are useful, particularly around the shoulder and ankle joints.

SEE A DOCTOR FIRST

Swimming can raise one's blood volume because of the effects of water pressure. However, while this can help to reduce one's exercising heart rate, when combined with a horizontal body position and the breathe-hold pattern required while swimming, the higher blood volume can lead to higher blood pressure.

This may be risky for people with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. It is best to discuss this with a doctor before starting a water-based exercise programme.

TAKE IT EASY

Do not be overly ambitious from the get-go. Slowly increase your swim intensity and duration as you become fitter and more comfortable in the water.

FOR NEWBIES, CONSIDER LEARNING BACKSTROKE FIRST

Going to the pool for the first time at middle age can be daunting.

For some, learning backstroke first may help to provide a better awareness of the ideal body position to have, for instance.

BE PATIENT, LEARN FROM EXPERTS

In swimming, a good "feel" for the water through the fingers and arms is very important in achieving the correct stroke patterns.

However, as we age, some of our sensory perceptions are diminished. This can reduce the feel for the water, resulting in a more mechanical stroke and, overall, a slower learning curve.

It is worthwhile to attend classes given by an experienced instructor. Doing so may help to improve your technique and maximise your swimming enjoyment.

Poon Chian Hui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2016, with the headline 'Why swimming is good for older people'. Print Edition | Subscribe