Making Waves: The benefits of swimming on aging populations

Jason Gelt
May 30, 2014
Photo of Hirofumi Tanaka

For years common sense has told us that swimming is a beneficial exercise. But thanks to ongoing research by Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the College of Education’s Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin, is offering proof to bolster those claims.

“Everybody knows exercise is good,” he said. “But the exercise that people talk about, research-wise, is often walking or cycling. When exercise guidelines are released swimming is always included, but there’s no research evidence that swimming is equally effective.”

Seeking to fill this knowledge gap, Tanaka is conducting a groundbreaking study of the effects of swimming on older adults afflicted by issues such as osteoarthritis.

“If you look at the Arthritis Foundation’s website and brochures, there’s a picture of a guy who’s swimming,” he said. “But if you search the literature to try to find any research that used swimming with arthritis patients, there’s none.

“Older people are preferentially affected by arthritis, especially osteoarthritis,” he said. “Some people hate to exercise because of the pain, but swimming is one of the few things where they don’t really have to worry about that. Because it’s not a weight bearing activity, they don’t suffer the knee or hip or joint pain that most arthritis patients suffer.”

Although the final results from the study won’t be available until later this summer, Tanaka has discovered that the concrete benefits of swimming are manifold.

“We’re finally getting data showing that swimming exercise reduces pain as well as improves functions in arthritis patients,” he said.

In addition to easing arthritis discomfort, the water-bound exercise has proven to be as effective as cycling and walking in reducing high blood pressure and mitigating knee and ankle pain in overweight patients who have no other viable form of exercise. Additionally, the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke can be erased from these patients. “If you’re obese and exercise in hot temperatures, you’ll overheat yourself, but you can avoid that in swimming,” Tanaka said.

A onetime triathlete with a long-standing interest in swimming, Tanaka has been studying the health benefits of the sport for 15 years. For his master’s thesis he focused on weight-training activities for competitive swimmers and subsequently studied the effects of swimming on elderly patients with high blood pressure for his doctoral degree.

“We’re finally getting data showing that swimming exercise reduces pain as well as improves functions in arthritis patients.” – Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory,

But it wasn’t until he arrived at UT Austin that his research acquired a fresh focus, thanks to a new technique for assessing arterial stiffness.

“I wanted to determine if swimming is effective in reducing arterial stiffness,” said Tanaka. “The reason your blood pressure shoots up as you get older is that your arteries become stiff. We examined that issue three or four years ago, so this latest research on osteoarthritis patients is the next step in the ongoing research.”

The current study is the culmination of these efforts, with close to two years of research and 30 study participants. “In many aspects it’s actually a good message that we can deliver,” he said. “Swimming is better than other forms of exercise for these patients, as long as benefits are verified. Now we’re getting the research findings to back it up. Finally.”

Fuelled by a desire to improve public health through non-invasive lifestyle interventions, Tanaka’s studies have moved from sport science to his current clinically oriented cardiovascular research interests. His primary passions revolve around preventive cardiology and preventive gerontology, which is the study of how cardiovascular and physical functions deteriorates with age and what kinds of lifestyle modifications can help retard those changes.

“I thought that would be more rewarding,” said Tanaka, “because many people suffer from heart attacks and strokes. In fact, my dad had aortic dissections so I have a family history and some personal interest to go along with that. It’s an ambitious mission, but I’d like my work to help eradicate life-threatening occurrences like heart attacks.”

Dr. Tanaka factoids:

  • Earned a B.A. in physical education/martial arts at the International Budo (Martial Arts) University in Japan, earning three black belts.
  • Joined the University of Texas at Austin faculty in 2002.
  • Has published more than 200 research articles in journals such as Circulation and the The Journal of Physiology.
  • Is an elected fellow of the American Heart Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, The Gerontological Society of America, and the Society for Geriatric Cardiology.