Exercising in water can improve Parkinson’s symptoms

Aquatic exercise, from lap swimming to water aerobics and Zumba, can improve balance, mobility, posture and more.

Working out in the water gives people with Parkinson’s the freedom to move without fear of falling, do weight-bearing exercise without joint stress, and resistance train without weights or bands. Just simply being in the water can often soothe and relax the body and mind.

Today, more aquatic facilities offer water-based classes specifically designed for people with Parkinson’s and other conditions that affect mobility and balance, such as arthritis. This trend is due to the demonstrated benefits of aquatic exercise for mobility and balance, tremors and other symptoms experienced by people with Parkinson’s.

Whether it’s traditional lap swimming, stretching and toning, water yoga or Zumba, or simply walking against the gentle resistance of the water, do whatever strikes your fancy! You’re likely to find a class at a YMCA, aquatic center or community pool near you. Even aqua cycling— spinning classes taken waist-deep in a pool—is fast becoming an option.

Worried about getting in and out of the pool because of mobility issues? Don’t be! Federal regulations since 2010 require that public pools be accessible to people with disabilities. Almost all public facilities offer some combination of ramps, shallow steps, handrails or powered lifts.

So make like a fish and start swimming to improve these common issues for people living with Parkinson’s.

Balance and posture: Water’s buoyancy supports weak muscles, making it easier to balance and hold good posture. And, when you’re in the water, your body must make continual small adjustments to the dynamic environment. This improves proprioception, or the sense of where the body is in space, enhancing balance, coordination and posture, as well as motor control during walking.

Mobility and range of motion: With the water physically supporting you, preventing stress on joints and muscles, and mentally freeing you from the fear of falling, it’s much easier to move. This increases both range of motion and overall mobility. That’s why physical therapists often use aquatic sports to motivate people to try movements they otherwise couldn’t do on land.

Freezing: Walking in the water requires an exaggerated gait and carrying out progressively larger ranges of motion, which can help reduce freezing episodes. And like other types of exercise, such as dance, that require coordinating the motions of the upper and lower extremities, moving in the water may boost communication between the body and brain, decreasing freezing episodes.

Weakened muscles: When you move in the water, you encounter gentle resistance from every direction. This helps to maintain and to build muscular strength, tone and endurance.

Tremors: When you’re swimming or doing another aquatic exercise, the meditative rhythm of your movements in the warm water can soothe muscles and relax the mind. Meanwhile, hydrostatic pressure—the force exerted by the water on the body—reduces swelling, rigidity and pain, and boosts circulation. All these factors may help reduce tremors.

Constipation: People taking part in aquatic exercise programs have reported it helps their bowels function better, according to a report on aquatic exercise by the American Parkinson Disease Association.

Spending too much time alone: Water exercise classes are a social affair. Shared experiences and making connections with others can lessen the feelings of social isolation and depression common among people with Parkinson’s, and give their well-being a much-needed boost.

The Brian Grant Foundation’s Power Through Project is another avenue for connection—and for sharing exercise goals and gains. Join the social network for people with Parkinson’s to learn about the benefits of being active—in and out of the water—find classes in your area, and connect with people who understand your experiences firsthand.

By Emily Delzell