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Training Tips for Senior Participants –

Growing Old Together



     by Felecia Fischell, BS




Venturing out to a tennis and swim club nearby my new residence, I’ve taken a few aquatic classes – a nice change from teaching.  After several classes with a young, fit and talented instructor, who seemed to know a bit about physiology and exercise science, I realized her expertise was most beneficial to patrons half the age of her class.  There were lines to enroll in her classes and the instruction was fun, thorough, and aptly well-informed.  Yet, I found exception with some of the exercises she demonstrated as they were risky, and potentially injurious to the population of the class. 

This experience prompted me to share key lessons for instructors who train seniors. Although there are probably many more, we will focus on three.

Water Tempo

Water tempo is a term I learned in training for aquatic exercise.  Often, when instructor demonstrate moves to the beat of the music, the movement speed is appropriate for land activities but not for in the pool.  In an aquatic workout performed primarily at land tempo, range of motion and good form suffer.  I have found that for most seniors in chest-to-neck-depth water, music tempo needs to be between 128 beats per minute--BPM (a little too slow) and 140 (a little fast) with movements performed on  the beat at 128 BPM  for water tempo, and every other beat at 140 BPM beat for half-water tempo activities.

Realistic and Appropriate Exercises

Perhaps out of necessity or budgetary constraints as an aquatic consultant, I have found that proper use of the water’s properties is an excellent method of training.  For safe progressions, train slowly with good form and then enhance the speed.  Consider Igor Burdenko’s six elements of movement:  Balance, Coordination, Flexibility, Endurance, Speed and then, resulting Strength.  My long-term clients have all demonstrated success on this path to fitness.

The addition of equipment has benefits but also important considerations.  For example, those with knee concerns may need to adjust positioning of an exercise band from around the ankle to above the knee joint during hip abduction.  Those with arthritis of the hands and fingers may experience additional pain when trying to grip the small handle of a buoyant hand bar. Adding buoyant equipment to an already buoyant individual, and possibly first-time exercise participant, can lead to near panic physical strain as she scramble-sculls awkwardly to remain vertical.

The instructor must be watchful of participants and ready to suggest an exercise alternative to target the same muscles. 

Total Wellness

Total wellness is a term used to encompass common trends towards holistic wellness, where Eastern and Western medicines, ancient and mechanical, homeopathic and synthesized compounds merge into a comprehensive care model.  Aquatic wellness has seen this shift in several ways. 

Perhaps the most beneficial wellness consideration I have embraced is breath.  The Intro to Aquatic Therapy was foundational to my understanding how crucially important controlling an automatic function can be in enhancing wellness.  Combining controlled movement with controlled breathing seems to have had a most profound effect in client satisfaction, retention and reported advances in goal achievement.  With knowledge gained in Ai Chi certification, I’ve coordinated breath with movement in stretching, rehab and even traditional water aerobics set to music. 

Cueing breath can be excessively repetitive for the instructor and equally challenging for the individual to master.  Nonetheless, in my experience, it has proven to be a skill that can be carried on in all life’s activities.  While there are exceptions, usually based on the effort or work phase of the exercise, a general guideline is that movements away from the torso are paired with inhalation and the movement towards the body are paired with exhalation.  There are exceptions and they generally relate to the greater effort of the movement pairing with the exhalation.

When immersed to neck depth, the force of the water is approximately equal during shoulder abduction and adduction.   Therefore, the inhalation duration may match the exhalation.  However, Ai Chi teaches us to exhale longer, more slowly and controlled than breath inhaled.  Therefore, with abduction, match the movement to the duration of the inhalation.  Adduction can be strong and with greater effort, allowing the movement to be completed before the exhalation breath is completed. So, the arms press against the outer thighs in an isometric action, to match the remaining duration of the exhalation.  Pressing the hand to the thigh creates the work phase of the movement.

Another point on total wellness is also an historically ‘given’ in the aquatic field:  socializing during class is important, especially for seniors.   For some students, the aquatic class is the entire scope of personal interaction for a day or possibly many days.  Make time in the warm-up or cool-down to allow seniors to visit or invite them to linger after class if the schedule allows (post COVID, of course).

Just as seniors need social time, they need aerobic training.  Incorporate at least 20 minutes of cardio-related activity to insure a holistic approach.  Exercise science confirms that interval training is highly effective, and seniors may embrace interval training much better than sustained effort.


As I approach completion of my sixth decade, I have now spent half of my life as an aquatic professional.  At 29 I could stand on deck and teach back-to-back classes, demonstrating full ROM at tempo and even high-kick over my head nine months pregnant (ask me the lessons I learned there).  Much of my career involved training seniors.  Seniors are a wealth of knowledge and insight.  I learned to ‘slow it down’ to interact at their pace and then I was best able to learn.  You might say it was a marriage made in heaven as we grew old together!


Twenty-nine years as a professional aquatic practitioner, Felecia Fischell, has “grown old together” with loyal patrons around the world. She took to the open waters in January 2018 with long-duration world cruises and developed a loyal following in aquatic personal training and wellness classes both wet and dry.  Ever adapting to on-the-spot changes in water and air conditions, populations and individual needs, she remains dedicated to achieving best possible outcomes for patients with any fitness level.  She is AEA, ATRI, WSI and SSI certified with a BS in Human Ecology.

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