Healthy balance, brains & bones: ‘watering’ the brain (Part 1)

Healthy balance, brains & bones: ‘watering’ the brain (Part 1)

Does water exercise benefit the aging brain? This article discusses some research findings, then dives into stimulating pool games to work the mind and body

by Mary E. Sanders, PhD, FACSM, RCEP


At the 2009 International Council on Active Aging Conference in December, our preconference workshop delved into current evidence on healthy balance, brains and bones, then applied lessons learned to water exercises and games. Throughout 2010, my “Splash!” column will bring this workshop to Journal on Active Aging® readers. In the January/February issue, we began with balance training. In this issue, we’ll explore water exercises and brain games that flex physical and intellectual biceps for sharp mental fitness. Finally, we’ll wrap up later this year by focusing on bones of steel, plus a Balance, Brains and Bones Circuit workout.


Nancy found the phone number she needed as the doorbell rang. But after dashing to the porch, she promptly forgot what she had been doing moments before. Chances are Nancy’s forgetfulness is normal aging. Still, she can take action to help boost her brainpower, store information and stay equipped to do something with it. Smart training targets cognitive and executive function skills.


Cognitive function is defined as “an intellectual process by which one becomes aware of, perceives or comprehends ideas. It involves all aspects of perception, thinking, reasoning, and remembering.”1 Executive function, on the other hand, is a set of cognitive skills that control or regulate abilities and behaviors,2 some of which include the abilities to initiate and stop actions, to monitor and change behaviors, to think abstractly, and to plan for the future.


Cognitive ability and executive function are associated with better quality of life, independent living and general health. It’s no wonder, then, that about half of people ages 60 and older are concerned about declining mental abilities.3 Since there is currently no cure for dementia, protective strategies—those that suggest some cognitive benefit—are important4 for the aging population.


A growing body of research supports the protective effects of intellectual and physical stimulation on cognitive functioning and dementia. Middleton and Yaffe4 suggest that more studies are needed, however, to determine if a specific strategy or a combined approach is better.


This article highlights an integrated approach, which consists of stimulating activities to improve cognitive skills in certain areas or domains and physical activities to improve fitness. Also included are general health goals to target a healthy diet and a multidisciplinary plan to reduce vascular risks such as diabetes. Let’s begin by exploring research snapshots that offer clues to some physical activities and behaviors that may influence brain health care.


Mind and body duets

A number of studies positively link physical activity and physical fitness to healthy cognition. More research is needed, however, especially to understand the type, frequency, intensity and pathways of how physical activity impacts brain health. A brief overview of some findings follows:



In several studies, physical activities that improved cardiovascular fitness were found to be beneficial for cognitive function, memory improvement and executive functioning skills in older adults.5,6,7,8 Benefits were especially noted in the areas of cognitive speed, motor function, and auditory and visual attention.


A meta-analysis of exercise interventions also showed that aerobic fitness training by sedentary older adults resulted in a beneficial cognitive effect.9 Endurance and strength training combined had more impact than an endurance program alone, and a short training program was as effective as a moderate-length program. Longer periods of training were even more effective.



People with depression are at high risk for cognitive impairment and may be less likely to engage in physical activity. 10 A study by Assis and colleagues11 compared outcomes of 15 weeks of land and deep-water training for 60 sedentary women, ages 18–60 years, who had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The researchers found that both water and land groups had similar gains in cardiovascular endurance and reported decreased pain levels, feeling “much better” at the program’s end. Compared to the land group, the water group showed improvements in depression sooner, at eight weeks, and this trend continued until the end of the study at 15 weeks. Only the deep-water group improved emotional scores.


This article is provided courtesy of the International Council on Active Aging (