This past weekend I watched a parade of nearly naked bodies at all stages of aging passing, their feet padding across the concrete at my eye-level. While many jiggled and sagged and hung in strangely fascinating folds, the beauty of the human form shined through each and every person. As I soaked in different hot pools and worked out some kinks I’ve had many insights, new photos, and some new poolside exercises to share.
Human beings love to play and swim in water. Water’s nature to flow, support, and offer resistance makes it a fun playmate! Our own bodies are about 60% water in adulthood, from about 75% at birth. Water is not only our playmate, but part of our very being. No wonder we love to soak in comfortable warm and even hot water. Whether in a natural setting, a spa, a deep pool, hot tub, or bath, we can find tremendous restorative benefits from a nice soak, as I am witnessing and experiencing on my holiday today. What is it about water, and our human nature and bodies, that drive people to spas and hot springs and bathtubs around the world?
Hydrotherapy is the use of submerging all or parts of the body in hot or cold water for medicinal purposes. The healing powers of water have been known probably forever, and certainly by ancient civilizations of Egypt, China, Japan and all native cultures lucky enough to have natural hot springs nearby. Here in California we are blessed with many hot springs, whether in Palm Springs or Desert Hot Springs (the site of my recent holiday) in the south, in northern California with Indian Springs in Calistoga, or in natural basins on Mt. Lassen, our family favorites.
After our long drive, we delightedly sipped cold drinks in plastic cups from the cafe as we stepped, gingerly at first, and then with grateful surrender into the not-quite hottest hot pool. Within minutes, we felt the constriction of the car drive evaporate, the stresses of the work week vanish, and the stiffness of over-used and not-used enough muscles soften. It’s easy to understand that water therapy can even help balance blood pressure as we, newly mellowed, stepped out of the pool and dried off to dress for a dinner in the surprisingly warm night air.
For all of us, the near weightlessness we feel in warm and deep water helps us in many ways. As we feel our whole body lighten, buoyed by the water, our organs are also lifted, floating slightly as gravity gives way to the supportive water environment and pressure is released. The weight of the body in water is reduced nearly 90%, so the strain and stresses on our joints, muscles and bones is similarly reduced, alleviating pain and creating spaces between our organic structures. We can actually feel this lightness, giving our body and spirit a well-deserved lift.
Exercise in the water, whether in a formal aquatics class or just by cycling the legs while holding onto the side of the pool (my grandmother’s favorite) provides an experience of not only buoyancy, but the resistance of water against the body that can help build endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. Research studies have shown that supervised aquatics programs can significantly reduce the risk of falls in the elderly for just this reason. [Study: Effects of hydrotherapy in balance and prevention of falls among elderly women, 2008.] Water exercise and hydrotherapy should be part of everyone’s health practice, especially as we age.
The state of the art in water therapy for eldercare can be seen at the AgeSong communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the new Emeryville (East Bay) campus, a Kniepp therapy pool and basins have been installed as part of a roof garden. The “big” pool is shallow, about 18” deep, with a metal handrail placed in the middle for security as the residents take therapy walks through the water. Outside the main pool, basins for soaking arms and legs in different temperature waters and with different therapeutic potions are available. When it’s my time, I’d like to be a resident there!
I developed a few new agility activities for my Agile Aging program while on this holiday. Here are some of them, for both in and out of the pool. The poolside exercises can be done with no one noticing you’re doing them – I know, I tried it out several times!
In the pool, standing:
Conscious Standing Balance Exercise: Stand at underarm height water level and extend both arms out to float on the top of the water. Feel your shoulders drop as they have to weight to carry; the water carries most of it Allow your feet to feel comfortable and secure on the ground of the pool. Feel your heels pressing downwards, soften the tension in your knees, and notice your posture. Feel free to laugh if you lose your balance! Even a small motion of the water can bowl you over, but you can feel it coming if you pay attention.
In the pool, holding railings:
Buttlerfly Stretch – stand with your back to the side of the pool, holding onto stair railings or curb of the pool, allow your chest to open forward as you lean away from your “wings.” Gently release and repeat a few times, never straining.
Back Stretch – holding onto side step railings with both hands, climb the steps as far as you can facing the wall, keep knees bent. This releases and stretches your lower back.
Hamstring Stretch – holding onto side step railings with both hands, step to lowest step and slowly begin to straighten your legs, stopping gently when you feel you’ve reached the extent of your “stretch”. Soften your knees to bend, and repeat a few times, slowly.
Poolside exercises, on the chaise lounge (can be done elsewhere, too):
Psoas Stretch and Hamstring Strengthener: Lie face down on the chaise, arms folded and forehead resting on hands, then slowly raise one leg a few inches with knee either straight or slightly bent, whichever is most comfortable. Slowly lower leg when it’s tired and repeat a few times until leg is tired. Repeat on other leg, or alternate legs as desired.
Back Extension: Lie face down on the chaise, arms folder and forehead resting on hands. Slowly lift your head and upper back and look around you with as little weight as possible on your hands. Do not strain, and lower slowly to rest again.
Quadricep (Thigh) Stretch: Lie face down on the chaise, arms folder and forehead resting on hands. Slowly bend your right knee so that your right foot moves near your buttocks. Release your right hand and arm and reach down to take hold of your ankle. While keeping your knees close together and hipbones touching the chaise, slowly and gently pull your ankle allowing the long muscles of the thigh to lengthen. Slowly release and repeat with other leg.
My hydrotherapy prescription for you? Get thee to the water! A tub bath, a foot soak, a weekend at a spa – whatever you can manage for your own health and healing, enjoy!
Valerie Baadh Garrett, RSMT, BFA, founder of Agile Aging’s unique mind-body approach to wellness for adults at all stages of aging, works from her Bay Area, California office when she is not traveling around the world, leading movement workshops and training programs for movement educators and therapists. More about Valerie can be found at Agile Aging’s website, and also at The Movement Academy Project.
Visit these websites for more information: