May 2018: Alzheimer's Disease & Brain Health

Spotlight on Aquatics & Alzheimer's Disease & Brain Health

Content courtesy of the National Swimming Pool Foundation 


It was not long ago that it was thought that once humans passed childhood, the brain was fixed, unalterable. We believed that any damage to the “central” nervous system would result in permanent disability since the brain was incapable of birthing new pathways. It appears that we were wrong.

There are certain areas of the brain which are truly able to regenerate after insult or injury. And – lo and behold – exercise is one of the keys to regeneration. How this happens is quite magical. Exercise acts like a catalyst, stimulating nerve cells to begin behaving like stem cells. In addition, exercise in water creates extra blood flow to the brain. The combination of exercise plus immersion appears to be especially effective at increasing the brain’s baseline activity, as well as stimulating neurogenesis and plasticity. 

What is plasticity? When specific pathways in the brain are blocked or damaged, the brain is capable of making use of alternate means of circumventing those blockages. This results in new pathways. It also increases brain’s myelin sheathing, thus enhancing transmission speed of electrical impulses and improving its function.

It’s true that the act of performing physical exercise can improve brain health. But all exercise is not created equally. Research has shown performing dual tasks (a cognitive task coupled with a physical task) may be just the ticket when working out to improve cognition. So instead of just “exercising”, encourage clients to problem-solve how to move in the water. For instance, instead of demonstrating an exercise and counting down the reps until the exercise is finished, a client can be asked to “show me how you could get over this box” or “under that rope”. Another useful tool is to couple a physical task (like balancing on one leg) with a cognitive one (like describing how to drive from work to home). 

Whatever exercises are chosen, they are often best performed in the pool. The hydrostatic pressure coupled with the protective features of buoyancy make aquatic exercise an amazingly versatile tool for brain health.


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