Underwater Treadmill

3 Surprising Benefits of Underwater Treadmill Therapy for Alzheimer’s Patients

Managing patients with Alzheimer’s disease requires patience and a systematic approach to holistic health. Although their conditions primarily affect their cognitive state, they create a ripple effect impacting multiple bodily systems and functions. Hydrotherapy for dementia offers considerable promise as a treatment protocol by minimizing risks and supporting healthy physical activity levels.

These patients often suffer a decline in physical fitness as their disease progresses. Struggles with cognition can render previously pleasant forms of exercise, like walking, less advisable because the risk of wandering off is too great. Furthermore, balance challenges often occur as brain plaques spread, increasing fall risks. Unfortunately, a lack of mobility can hasten disease progression, creating a negative loop.

Here’s why you should get your Alzheimer’s patients on a water treadmill to reap the surprising benefits of this therapeutic modality.

How Exercise Benefits Chronic Conditions, Including Those Affecting the Mind

To fully understand the benefits of water treadmill therapy for Alzheimer’s patients, it helps to recognize the mechanisms behind how physical activity helps everyone, including chronic conditions affecting the mind. People tend to conceptualize physical and mental health as two distinct phenomena. However, it’s impossible to divorce one from the other.

Exercise enhances mental health and mood by influencing the production of critical chemical compounds in your brain. It can also alter brain structure and encourage neuroplasticity. Science currently knows of three factors contributing to the mental health benefits of movement.

Exercise Produces Endorphins

Endorphins are a group of hormonal peptides that bind with your body’s opioid receptors, reducing pain. As anyone who has ever taken an opioid-based medication can attest, they also produce a mild feeling of euphoria. Scientists have long associated these biochemicals with the so-called “runner’s high,” and recent evidence suggests more vigorous movement increases the amount of these chemicals your body produces.

Physical Activity Activates Your Body’s Endocannabinoid System

You may have heard of using cannabis to treat chronic pain. American research remains sparse because of the Schedule 1 classification, but scientists theorize that the plant’s healing powers work by boosting your body’s natural levels of endocannabinoids.

That’s right you have an innate endocannabinoid system that won’t make you high when stimulated. However, it produces many of the same beneficial effects as smoking or ingesting the plant. Researchers found that physical activity elevates cannabinoid concentrations in your blood while increasing receptors, resulting in antidepressant effects, improved neuroplasticity, ameliorated memory and reduced pain.

Movement Increases Your Number of Dopamine Receptors

Dopamine plays a critical role in mood regulation and influences your coordination. Studies with mice show an increase in dopamine receptors, maximizing your brain’s ability to use this crucial neurotransmitter. Mice who underwent aggressive treadmill therapy reaped the benefits of improved muscular coordination, and research on physical activity in Parkinson’s patients shows similar results.

Underwater Treadmill

Physiological Benefits of Exercise for Chronic Health Conditions

In addition to the mental health perks, exercise confers multiple physiological benefits that help treat nearly any chronic ailment more manageable. Consider the following:

  • Lead to better weight management: Lack of physical activity often leads to trouble controlling weight. Excess pounds can contribute to comorbid health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and health disease. Additionally, it creates a problem for caregivers, who must often assist in lifting and moving such patients, frequently straining themselves in the bargain.
  • Reduces heart disease risk: Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of men and women worldwide. Physical movement strengthens cardiac tissue, reducing risk.
  • Acts as an anti-inflammatory: Exercise encourages inflammation at first, and hitting it too hard can increase C-reactive protein levels, an inflammatory marker. Researchers associate inflammation with nearly every chronic disease, including Alzheimer’s. However, research shows that moderate physical activity has anti-inflammatory effects, making gentle, yet challenging aquatic workouts an ideal choice for most.
  • Improves physical strength and coordination: Exercise helps many older adults maintain their independence as they age. Strengthening muscles, bones and connective tissues through physical movement reduces patients’ fall risks and the chances of severe injury if they do take a tumble. They maintain the ability to reach for objects on high shelves and bend over and retrieve items dropped on the floor.
  • Boosts energy levels: Alzheimer’s patients often sleep more as their disease progresses. Their caregivers might indulge the extra slumber, but it steals quality of life. Exercise keeps blood flowing to vital tissues and improves lung capacity, resulting in more energy for daily activities.
  • Promotes social engagement: Social engagement is critical to helping Alzheimer’s patients maintain their mental and emotional well-being. Walking on a water treadmill may seem like a solo pursuit, but many hydrotherapy programs also incorporate occasional group fitness as part of the fun.
  • Helps with quality sleep: Although Alzheimer’s patients may sleep more, they don’t necessarily enjoy the highest slumber quality. Physical activity helps promote deep, healing rest. However, it’s best to avoid too much activity close to bedtime as it can elevate your core temperature and heart rate, making it more challenging to fall under.

Anyone can reap the benefits of physical activity, especially those with chronic conditions. However, certain factors make water treadmills and hydrotherapy preferred treatments of choice among Alzheimer’s patients.

3 Benefits of a Water Treadmill for Alzheimer’s Patients

What makes hydrotherapy for Alzheimer’s uniquely effective as part of a total treatment regimen? Here’s why you should get the ones under your care on a water treadmill.

Boost Overall Cognitive Performance and Slow Disease Progression

Perhaps the best reason for getting your Alzheimer’s patients on a water treadmill is to slow disease progression and improve overall cognitive performance. One study of 26 older women who were otherwise sedentary examined the effects of an aquatic exercise program. They discovered significantly enhanced BDNF, IGF-1 and cognitive function among the workout group compared to those who remained inactive.

BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a critical molecule involved in learning and memory. Reduced expression of this substance plays a crucial role in Alzheimer’s pathogenesis. Studies in mice show promise for possible treatment through supplementation, although human trials remain in the future.

IGF-1 is insulin-growth factor 1. It promotes normal bone and tissue growth by managing human growth hormone levels in your blood. Scientists have previously linked lower levels of this substance with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Finally, exercise may reduce overall Alzheimer’s risk and slow disease progression by managing brain inflammation. Animal studies show that moderate movement minimizes the activation of microglial cells, your brain’s primary immune cell. These come alive to fight infection, but keeping them perpetually “switched on” can damage neurons. Patients with the disease often show an increased number of such activated cells.

Avoid Exercise Resistance Due to Comorbid Pain

One of the most frustrating aspects caregivers experience when recommending physical activity for patients is exercise resistance. Many individuals with chronic conditions avoid one of the best treatments available because it initially brings discomfort. Such concerns are valid for example, few people would suggest that a patient with advanced arthritis train for a marathon because of the painful impact on their joints.

Exercise resistance can be particularly frustrating for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. In addition to balking at the suggestion they do something they deem unpleasant, they might exhibit erratic behavior. It’s sadly all too common for treatment team members to deal with bites, punches and scratches.

However, one benefit of hydrotherapy for dementia is decreasing exercise resistance by reducing associated pain. For example, water treadmill workouts ease pressure on joints by supporting much of the patient’s body weight, making movement comfortable. Furthermore, many people enjoy the sensation of sliding into the water, assuming the temperature is comfortable enough for their tastes. Individuals may look forward to treatment and even request it.

Improve Comorbid Mental Health Disorders

Alzheimer’s disease shares a complicated link with other mental health disorders. For example, those with major depression and schizophrenia run an elevated risk of developing it. Furthermore, these comorbid conditions can complicate treatment, prompting erratic behavior or treatment resistance. Patients may engage in angry, dangerous outbursts or refuse to get out of bed.

The benefits of physical activity for mental health work for dementia. As patients reap the perks of exercise, they look forward to it, becoming more compliant with treatment. Their mood improvement makes managing their care less cumbersome, even outside the gym.

8 Tips for Using Hydrotherapy for Dementia

How can you best incorporate hydrotherapy for dementia and Alzheimer’s treatment? The following eight tips will help you make the most of your water treadmill time.

Remember, Safety First

Safety is crucial when working with Alzheimer’s patients around water. Ensure you put the following safeguards in place before each session:

  • Adequate supervision: You should never leave patients unattended around water. This rule applies before they get in the pool. Once submerged, ensure you have sufficient strength to assist them if the circumstances warrant it. You might have another individual, like a lifeguard, standing by during sessions to enhance safety.
  • Lifts and devices: Public pools must remove barriers to patients with disabilities by including devices like lifts to help them in and out of the water. Test such equipment before use to ensure it remains in safe operating condition before your patient climbs aboard.
  • Hygiene and skin protection: Some patients with Alzheimer’s struggle with incontinence, which poses health risks for other facility users. They should wear snugly fitting plastic coverings over diapers to protect the public. Additionally, water amplifies the sun’s rays. Those exercising outdoors should wear appropriate sunscreen on exposed areas and guard their eyes with UVA- and UVB-blocking sunglasses. Proper moisturization after submersion can help prevent dry skin from chlorine and salt.

Adjust for Comfort

Part of the magic of hydrotherapy for dementia is reducing exercise resistance by making the experience pleasant, not painful. However, you won’t reap these water treadmill perks if your patient shies away from chilly waters.

Ensure the temperature is to their liking as much as possible. You might not have control over public facilities but look for those with heated water. Additionally, you can find long-sleeved and legged bathing suits that insulate your patient against the chill.

Time It Right

Many Alzheimer’s patients struggle with nighttime wakefulness. Those with Lewy body dementia may completely reverse their sleep schedule, remaining lucid at midnight and sleeping all day. It’s best to keep them on a regular schedule as much as possible.

Therefore, time your exercise session right. It’s best to hold it in the morning so your patient’s core temperature and heart rate have plenty of time to return to normal before bed. The minimum is 90 minutes before bedtime, although movement close to shuteye can sometimes be disruptive.

Learn on Land

Water might support body weight but also make it harder to see. Even healthy individuals sometimes struggle to interpret an instructor’s guidelines if they can’t follow their movements.

Therefore, practice on land before you get in the water. You can have patients rehearse movements like shoulder raises while seated in a wheelchair and dry, adding resistance once you get in the pool.

Include Water Weights

Walking on a water treadmill improves cardiovascular fitness and improves overall balance. However, you must also include resistance training in any well-rounded exercise program.

Include water weights for variety and fun. Your patient might enjoy participating in an aquacise class, encouraging healthy socialization. They’ll use specialized styrofoam weights to increase resistance.

Incorporate Flexibility

Flexibility work is also a vital part of remaining healthy. Pliable muscles, ligaments and tendons are less likely to tear and result in severe injury if your patient falls.

You can use devices like the pool stairs to help you stretch. Additionally, there’s nothing wrong with getting most yoga straps wet, and you can use them for extra support and balance.

Encourage Socialization

Walking on a water treadmill can be a solitary pursuit. However, your patient needs healthy socialization to maintain cognitive function as much as physical movement.

Whenever possible, include a social element with the following suggestions:

  • Encourage classes: Classes switch up your patient’s exercise routine, introducing them to new moves while helping them meet other participants.
  • Go early, stay late: Build a bit of extra padding into your therapy time. It allows your patient to chat with others on their care team and in the pool area.
  • Throw a pool party: There’s no reason you can’t have a small patient pool party with adequate supervision. Everyone will benefit from the movement and socialization regardless of their diagnosis.

Emphasize Fun

Decreased exercise resistance is perhaps the best benefit of hydrotherapy for dementia. However, your attitude significantly influences how your patient perceives this activity.

Therefore, strive to make it fun. Try to generate a feeling of anticipation in your patient before heading to the facility. Simple statements like, “It’s pool day awesomeness” can get your patient psyched up and eager to participate in their care.

Bottom Line 

Exercise is one of the best treatments for staving off dementia and slowing disease progression. However, that’s only one of the benefits of water treadmill therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.

Consider the above benefits of hydrotherapy for dementia. Then, find a facility and get your patient excited about this fun and healing protocol.

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