Aging and aquatics: Older swimmers find a wealth of benefits in the pool

| Saturday, July 21, 2012, 12:22 p.m.

When Fran Cohen went to her Simmons College reunion this spring, she was one of few graduates of the class of '52 who wasn't a little stooped or using a walker.

Unusually spry and independent at 82, Cohen chalks it up to daily swims at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill.

And she doesn't just splash around the shallow end of the pool. Cohen logs a mile a day, seven days a week, regardless of her mood or the weather.

“If there's a foot of snow but I can get out of my driveway, I swim,” says Cohen, a retired pre-school teacher who lives in Highland Park. “There are days when I have to push myself, but I focus on how good I'll feel afterward.”

She's been swimming 72 lengths of the pool daily for as long as she can remember, and says it helps her to maintain energy for doing other things, like ushering at local theaters and gardening.

“I do a very ungraceful crawl and it takes me about an hour and a half,” she says of her time in the water. “But I don't stop until I'm done.”

Dr. Jerry Browdie, 81, also swims daily at the JCC. When he lived in Greensburg as director of dentistry of Westmoreland Regional Hospital, he would get up at 4:30 a.m. to be in the water at the local YMCA by 5.

“I did that until I was 72, because I wanted to be sure to get a lane,” says Browdie, of Squirrel Hill. “I've been swimming since I was 3. I'm compulsive about it. If I miss a day, I don't feel as good.”

Cohen and Browdie are part of a growing cadre of grey-haired athletes who favor aquatics for fitness. Some competed in their youth, while others are converts from high-impact sports, according to long-time JCC swimming coach Al Rose, whose masters team is represented at national meets every year.

“I've worked with people well into their 70s, including former runners who started swimming because they hurt their ankles or because their knees gave out on them,” Rose says. “Swimming is gentle on the joints.”

Former JCC aquatics director Katherine Longwell, who now works as a pool and swimming consultant, says a lot of baby boomers, “who set fitness on fire” 40 years ago, turn to water in their advanced age. “They're the marathoners and the people who did Jane Fonda's aerobics, and suffered a lot of wear and tear,” says Longwell, of Sewickley.

Many older swimmers participate in events sponsored by the 50,000-member U.S. Masters Swimming and other organizations.

Jimmy Goldman, 75, and wife Susie, 73, of Squirrel Hill, are among them. As masters swimmers at the JCC, they will vie July 27 in the Pennsylvania Senior Games in Harrisburg.

Their other passion is cycling, but swimming is their competitive outlet, says Goldman, who swam in high school and college, and then took at 24-year hiatus before hitting the pool again.

He got inspired when his son Carl was preparing to swim in a city high school championship by practicing at the Carnegie Mellon University pool.

“One day, I said to him, ‘Tomorrow I'm going to bring my suit,'” recalls Goldman, an architect and Carnegie Tech alumnus. “My first time back in the water, I swam 20 lengths and was beat, so I decided to swim on my lunch hour a couple of times a week and gradually build up my endurance.”

He has averaged five miles a week for more than 30 years, and hasn't let knee replacement surgery or spinal stenosis slow him down. “I may be 90 years old below the waist, but above the waist I'm 35,” he quips. “And I have the attitude of a 35-year-old. Swimming is a big part of it.”

Physicians generally endorse swimming as an exercise folks can expect to enjoy for life. Walking is another, but swimming tends to be even more beneficial, according to Dr. Edward Snell, director of primary sports medicine at Allegheny General Hospital of the West Penn-Allegheny Health System.

“You use more muscles, so it's more vigorous, and you burn more calories — about 250 in half an hour of swimming, compared with 150 in a half-hour walk.”

Swimming also moves most of the joints, including small joints, and can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, Snell says.

Dr. Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, touts swimming for seniors in her book, “Fitness After 40.”

“I love the water for people 60 and above, because it takes knee and hip arthritis and back pain out of the equation,” Wright says. “I have this indelible memory from the 2005 Senior Olympics in Pittsburgh, of people using walkers to get to the side of the pool and then diving in and doing their competition.”

Wright bought membership at a swimming facility for her mother, 73, when arthritis made long-distance walking too difficult. “When you have early arthritis in the hips and knees, the buoyancy of the water reduces (impact) loading on the joints,” Wright says.

Over time, swimming and even walking in waist-high water can promote freedom of movement and a spirit of independence, she says. “Losing mobility because of age or pain is a blow to your confidence. Restoring mobility restores self-confidence.”

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends three to five hours of moderate-intensity activity, such as swimming, each week, Snell says. But he advised that anyone just starting a swimming program first get an OK from their physician, and then gradually work toward a goal.

“Alternate five or 10 minutes of lap-swimming with periods of rest, and increase activity by 10 to 15 percent a week,” he says, “until you're up to 85 percent of an hour.”

Older folks who want to learn — or relearn — to swim will find plenty of support, says Longwell, who trains instructors for swimming and other exercise programs sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation.

“Many insurance companies promote senior aquatics. Some will even pay for pool memberships because they find it's cheaper to keep seniors active than to cover the cost of treating illnesses associated with the cycle of inactivity and pain,” says Longwell, who works with older swimmers through the Community College of Allegheny County Aquaritis program at the Sisters of Divine Providence pool in the North Hills.

Swimmers involved in water-aerobics classes or masters teams get the added good-health perk of socialization, Longwell says. “Making friends and comparing notes on your progress is a big benefit.”

Retired psychologist Marian Auld-Whitten, 82, of McCandless agrees. “Our Aquaritis class is a social-emotional as well as physical event,” she says. “Everybody who comes has some problem, but when they get into the pool, they have a smile on their face.”

A back injury prompted Auld-Whitten to join the class. “It's been fabulous,” she says. “I want to keep my health, and I'm working at it.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

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