Child with a disability swims in a pool

Splash Into Fitness: The Benefits of Aquatic Exercise for Kids with Cerebral Palsy

For children with cerebral palsy (CP), traditional land-based exercises can be challenging due to poor balance, postural control, and excessive joint loading. However, aquatic exercise offers a unique solution, providing a low-impact environment that reduces the effects of gravity and allows for greater freedom of movement. “The buoyancy of water decreases the influence of gravity and provides increased postural support,” according to Michelle Kelly and Johanna Darrah* from their study titled, “Aquatic exercise for children with cerebral palsy.” These characteristics may allow children with CP to exercise in water with more freedom than on land.

Boosting fitness levels

Aquatic exercise has the potential to improve various aspects of physical fitness in children with CP. Kelly and Darrah highlight that saying, “Studies involving typically developing children and children with asthma report a significant improvement in aerobic capacity for children engaging in aquatic exercise two or more times a week.” Additionally, the authors note that existing research, though limited, has shown improvements in flexibility, respiratory function, muscle strength, gait, and gross motor function in children with CP who participated in aquatic exercise programs. 

Tailoring the workout

One of the advantages of aquatic exercise is its versatility. Kelly and Darrah state, “The resistive forces of buoyancy and viscous drag permit a variety of aerobic and strengthening activities that can be easily modified to accommodate the wide range of motor abilities of children with CP.” This allows therapists and instructors to tailor the exercises to each child’s individual needs and abilities, ensuring a safe and effective workout. 

A safe and supportive environment

The aquatic environment itself offers unique benefits for children with CP. “An additional benefit of aquatic exercise is the reduced levels of joint loading and impact, providing a gentler environment for children with unstable joints who experience persistent and abnormal loading,” the study’s authors say. Furthermore, the buoyancy of water provides postural support, reducing the risk of falls and injuries. 

The benefits of aquatic exercise

Kelly and Darrah conclude that aquatic exercise is a promising type of exercise for children with CP. This is because of the unique properties of water that may reduce risks associated with joint loading. Additionally, aquatic exercise may allow children to engage more comfortably in strength and aerobic activity by way of land-based exercise. “Further evidence is needed regarding the effects of aquatic exercise on fitness and its place in the physical management programs of children with CP,” they say. 

More research is needed to establish best practices and evaluate the long-term benefits of aquatic exercise for children with CP. However, the existing evidence suggests a promising path to the children’s improved fitness and overall well-being. By embracing the unique benefits of the aquatic environment, parents and therapists can help these children splash their way to a healthier, more active lifestyle.

*Michelle Kelly BScPT MSc, Physical Therapist, Calgary Youth Physiotherapy, Calgary; Johanna Darrah PhD, Professor, Department of Physical Therapy, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. “Aquatic exercise for children with cerebral palsy.” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 2005, 47: 838–842.

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