Aquatic Therapy’s Role in Heart Health
Heart disease emerged as the leading cause of death across the globe in the mid-1900s. Today, many nations are cutting this mortality rate through public health education. Most people now know the basics—smoking, physical inactivity, obesity and unhealthy diets harm their heart. At least 80% of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke can be avoided.
With Heart Health Month coming to a close, it’s a great time to review the benefits of aquatic therapy to our cardiovascular well-being.
Those who can’t, can in the water
Aerobic exercise training has been widely promoted for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease; exercise improves cardiovascular function. Improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness from aerobic exercise training (AET) are associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality in men and women across their life span. Despite the overwhelming evidence to support the benefits of regular AET, less than half of adults meet the US recommendations of at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.
For many, exercising on land can be painful or uncomfortable, particularly when comorbidities exist.
Aquatic therapy is an exercise modality that makes fitness more accessible for more people; those suffering from chronic pain or obesity can utilize aquatic modalities with reduced pain. In the water, an individual’s body weight is reduced, which means unloading joints and muscles. With decreased pain, individuals can perform exercises at greater intensities in water vs land to reverse a deconditioned state. With reduced body weight due to buoyancy, individuals limited on land because of their weight gain the ability to ambulate and move freely while immersed in water.
The function of resistance jets in aquatic therapy
Resistance jets like those found in the HydroWorx systems allow for greater intensities of rehabilitation in water while maintaining orthopedic restrictions, stride cadence or cumulative stress on joints without sacrificing cardiopulmonary activity. In fact, use of resistance jets can exceed comparable values observed on land. During water walking and running, only one half to one third the speed is required to achieve the same metabolic intensity as on land. (The Use of Aquatics, p. 5)
At Stonehill Franciscan Services in Dubuque, IA, physical therapists use the HydroWorx 2000 series pool to bring fitness and mobility to their patient population.
Former Stonehill Director of Rehabilitation, Rachel McDermott stated, “As far as residents that have benefitted from the pool—the list is huge! We have physical therapy clients that have not walked in 10 years that were able to walk for 10-15 minutes in the pool. The pool has especially been useful when patients are non-weight-bearing for weeks or months, we can still progress them and treat in the water where weight restrictions are not an issue.”
A warm water environment increases blood flow
“Because an individual immersed in water is subjected to external water pressure, which within a relatively small depth exceeds venous pressure, blood is displaced upward through the venous and lymphatic systems, first into the thighs, then into the abdominal cavity vessels, and finally into the great vessels of the chest cavity and into the heart. Central venous pressure rises with immersion to the xyphoid and increases until the body is completely immersed. Pulmonary blood flow increases with increased central blood volume and pressure, increasing cardiac output.” (The Use of Aquatics in Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Rehabilitation and Physical Conditioning, Kevin E. Wilk, David M. Joyner, p. 5-6).
Increased blood flow while immersed in water improves the ability of the blood vessels to dilate which, over time, lowers blood pressure. And like any muscle, the heart gets stronger with increased work.
Through the properties of water, combined with an underwater treadmill enhanced with resistance jets, aquatic therapy can provide patients who otherwise have difficulty moving an effective way to exercise.