As the weather heats up, many people head to the pool and swimming to cool off and relax. But for seniors, there is another important, even life-saving, benefit to taking a dip.

Australian researchers recently studied 1,700 men age 70 and older, and compared the types of exercise they did with their likelihood of experiencing a fall over a four-year period.

While there were nearly 2,700 falls during the course of the study, the 88 men who swam on a regular basis were 33 percent less likely to experience a fall compared with the other men in the study. Of note, the study found that men who did other forms of exercise such as golf, calisthenics, biking, or  aerobic running or walking were no less likely to experience a fall. View the complete study abstract.

Among U.S. seniors 65 and older, one in three experiences a fall in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, potentially resulting in broken bones, head trauma, and other severe injuries. But even minor falls can decrease seniors’ mobility during recovery, leading to other health problems.

The research study hypothesized that older adult swimmers benefit from an increase in core strength, as well as better balance and coordination. “Unlike [with] land-based sports, swimmers are required to create their own base of support and, at the same time, to produce a coordinated movement of both upper and lower extremities,” noted study author Dafna Merom, associate professor of physical activity and health at the University of Western Sydney.

The researchers also discovered that swimmers performed better than other study participants on a “postural sway” test, which grades standing balance.

While this particular study looked only at men, the researchers believe it is probable that swimming would also lower women’s risk of falls. “I would expect it will work even better for women” given that women typically have less muscle strength than men, said Merom.

Ready to start your swimming?

Here are a few tips for seniors (or anyone) to keep in mind before they dive into a new swimming regimen:

·         If you are swimming outdoors, wear a waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Spray sunscreens can protect those tough-to-reach spots on your back. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before entering the water.

·         A healthy, light snack before a swim can give you a boost of energy; a banana or a handful of trail mix are good options.

·         Hydration is critical (even in the water!). Keep a bottle of drinking water nearby, and take sips even if you don’t yet feel thirsty.

·         Always swim with a partner or in a pool with a lifeguard.

·         A pair of goggles as well as a swim cap will help keep the water out of your eyes, and a comfortable swimsuit will make for a more enjoyable swim.

·         Many pools offer designated swimming lanes, adult-only swim times, or water aerobics programs. Call your local pool to learn about their specific offerings.

Check out the Red Cross website for additional swimming safety pointers.

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