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Swimming offers a lower risk of injury and protects against over-heating while exercising, a common problem for older adults.

Outdoor swimming pools soon will be opening up across Canada, and for most people it's just a seasonal activity.

But swimming year-round is an excellent way for to keep fit, said Hirofumi Tanaka, associate professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies how swimming contributes to fitness.

A recent study of women 55 to 70 by Australian researchers found that after a year, women who swam regularly had a slightly greater weight reduction along with a slight improvement in cholesterol profiles over women who walked.

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It's a valuable form of exercise for people of all ages. But for those over 40 who are starting to develop various age-related ailments, swimming offers advantages that many other exercises can't, he said.

For one, there is reduced weight-bearing in the water - and less stress on the joints.

This is one reason Sharon Earle, 66, of Halifax likes swimming - it's easy on her arthritic joints. She swims at the YMCA once or twice a week where she does lengths for half an hour. It's part of her overall exercise regime, and has been doing it since 1980 when her doctor suggested she become more active. She also does treadmill walking a couple times a week.

Swimming is also easier on the joints of people who are overweight, and is a good way for heavier people to ease into exercise, Dr. Tanaka said.

Pat Nicol, 77, of Owen Sound, Ont. has been an avid swimmer throughout her adult life. She began taking it seriously and took lessons when her children were toddlers - she wanted to make sure she was a strong enough swimmer to help her kids if they ever got into trouble in the lake at the family cottage. Then, she was hooked. It became a regular part of her fitness regime.

For years, during the summer months, she swam along the shore of Georgian Bay. "I'd go across a couple of properties. Then the next time out, swim across the bottom of another one. I'd be out maybe an hour each time," she said.

Swimming offers a lower risk of injury, Dr. Tanaka said and protects against over-heating while exercising, a common problem for older adults.

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What you get out of swimming depends on what you do in the water, according to Dominique MacDonald, manager of the Aquatic Centre at the University of Calgary. There are various programs to aid your workout, ranging from learning the basics to advanced fitness techniques.

It's easy for people to go into the pool, do laps for a while, and not get a good workout, she said. Many people do laps on autopilot without really challenging themselves. It's all about how much water you push (resistance) and how much effort you put into it (the cardio workout).

Ms. MacDonald suggests signing up for aqua-fit classes, which can teach you techniques such as improving your stroke; using equipment such as pull buoys, flippers, kickboards, hand paddles or a pacing clock; and other skills that will help you get the type of workout you need. Subtle skills such as hand position and motion during a stroke can affect how much water you push and which muscles you exercise in your arms.

Exercise in the water provides both resistance training to help build muscle and a good cardio workout.

Ms. Nicol goes to the Y twice a week where she does lengths, and then participates in a Joints-In-Motion aqua-fit program designed for people who have some sort of joint, balance, pain, or other issues. She broke her tibeal plateau (just below the knee) almost a year and a half ago.

After 12 weeks in a cast, she couldn't even stand in a pool without holding on to the edge. She attributes Joints-in-Motion to helping her gradually gain strength back in her leg. Activities in that class used the resistance in water to help strengthen her leg, she said. Now, she's swimming lengths again.

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Taking the plunge

Take lessons to make sure your stroke is as good as it can be. A poor stroke could mean you struggle too much and tire out too soon. On the other hand, a stroke that is too efficient could mean you're not working hard enough in the water and need to build a workout to push yourself more.

Shallow-water aqua-fit classes provide minimum impact workouts. They generally focus on mild to moderate exercise that's easy on the joints. Some programs are geared specifically to people aged 50 and up.

Deep-water aqua-fit classes provide moderate to intense exercise. Instructors teach good technique for doing deep water running or 'cycling', running-like exercises, and more. This is good for both cardio and muscle strengthening. Zero impact.

Aqua-fit is good for people with mild arthritis. These classes help with range of motion and pain reduction.

Check to see if there are local swim clubs, or a Masters Swimming Canada club in your area. You may be able to join in their practices.

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6. Swim three to five times a week. Give yourself challenges to make sure you're getting a workout.

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