A roundup of several recent studies, courtesy of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), found that water exercise may offer unique benefits for stroke rehabilitation. These include improved balance, gains in muscular strength, and cardiovascular benefits.

While researchers have known water exercise produces positive benefits, specific measurements for targeted populations were hard to gather in the past. However, newer technology is allowing for more detailed study and assessment of the effects on the cardiovascular system.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year, which costs the country an estimated $34 billion per year in medical expenses and missed work days. Finding additional methods to aid stroke rehabilitation stands to help a large population.

A clinical trial published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined two groups of stroke patients receiving therapy. One group performed conventional land-based exercise therapy, while the other also participated in water exercise. Researchers concluded that the water exercise group experienced additional improvements in both lower extremity function and quality of life.

“People [who have had a] stroke have a hard time with mobility in one side of the body,” says Jackie Nagle Zera, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Studies at John Carroll University, in University Heights, Ohio. “The buoyancy factor of water allows them a more comfortable place to start -- it reduces the risk of falling.”

A case report presented to Florida Gulf Coast University looked at spinal cord injury patients and stroke survivors whose walking had been affected by some level of paralysis. Patients participated in underwater treadmill exercise to help restore their gait. Researchers found stroke patients experienced an increase in leg strength and balance as well as improvements in gait and overall quality of life.

Another positive benefit to cardio patients participating in water exercise, according to Dr. Zera, is the increase in hydrostatic pressure when the body is in water, which helps blood flow back up to the heart more easily. This, in turn, reduces the amount of stress and strain put on the heart, allowing patients to make physical gains without risking cardiovascular complications.

Additionally, a very recent study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation examined how stroke patients' cardiorespiratory systems responded to exercise stress tests, both on land and water treadmills. Researchers found the aquatic treadmill exercise yielded better results, showing its potential for effective aerobic training in this population.

Improved technology and more funding for aquatic exercise research mean a higher likelihood that water immersion and exercise will be more heavily utilized as a treatment in the coming years. Dr. Zera says more information can lead to better prescriptions and guidelines for those exercising in water.