Healthy balance, brains & bones: ‘watering’ the brain (Part 3)

Healthy balance, brains & bones: ‘watering’ the brain (Part 3)

Activities to ‘tickle’ the brain

Water provides a safe environment for older adults to learn new activities to improve fitness and expand thinking, including brain teasing physical exercises that may be risky on land. Added to cardio, strength and flexibility exercises, these movements can be performed in the pool without fear of falling.


Target components of training that “tickle” the brain include:

  • accuracy and short-term memory: concentrating and repeating previously given information

  • audio and visual skills: listening better and noticing surroundings

  • divided attention, multitasking: selecting attention, blocking out other distractions and performing unrelated skills

  • sensory conflict and quick decisions: timed processing and sorting input about multiple sensory perceptions

  • music and nature: connecting with nature to focus and decompress

  • sequencing and reasoning: attending to visual information by ordering numbers and letters


The stimulating brain games shown on pages 68–72 apply some framework components suggested by Laventure and Aherne,16 combined with challenges suggested by Larkin17 and Merzenich18 and findings from the current literature, to create structured exercise activities adopted for the water. These games are task focused. They are designed for groups or individuals who seek protective brain health and wellness, or for those who may be in the early to middle stages of dementia; they can also be adopted one-on-one for people in other stages of the “dementia journey.”


Today, some of the most promising strategies for protecting the brain include cardiovascular health, cognitive activity, physical activity, social engagement, diet and recognition of depression.10 The aquatic experience provides participants with an environment where they can be one with nature, interact with others, and go with the flow of activity that stimulates mind and body.


Mary E. Sanders, PhD, FACSM, RCEP, is an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine’s Division of Medical Nutrition in the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno. An International Council on Active Aging® Advisory Board Member, Sanders is also the director of WaterFit™/Wave Aerobics® and Golden Waves®. She can be reached at



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    A special thanks is extended to Mary C.V. Curry, adjunct faculty, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota—we thought and played hard to develop these games. Also, thank you to my wonderful trainers including Daphne (Hsiu-Hui Tai), who learned the games at the Physical Fusion Conference in April. Finally, thanks to Jurgen Spreeman for the “Steady Candles” photograph, taken during Aquateam’s 14th European Convention, Karlsruhe, Germany; and to Evelyne Janz and Nicholas Reverchon, from Bois Cerf in Lausanne, Switzerland, for playing “Pass the Paddle, Pass the Ball” for the camera.


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