For Navy Veteran Mary Sue Mistler, fear and panic began to set in as she got older and started dealing with long-term chronic illness. She felt her body start to weaken and noticed that she was having trouble coordinating and organizing her body’s movements.
“I’ll never forget the moment, while on vacation, when I jumped into a pool and felt as if my brain and muscles forgot how to swim,” Mistler said. “I have always been a little athletic so, for me, that was when I realized something was very wrong.”
Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, light sensitivity and experiencing difficulties with being upright and moving around became increasingly difficult for Mistler.
“My health care providers at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System (NF/SGVHS) recommended the aquatic therapy program,” she said. “Not only does the program provide physical benefits, but it is great for people with neurological conditions like me, as well.”
The hospital’s aquatic therapy program is a whole health therapeutic treatment provided by certified recreation therapists who are also qualified and certified in basic water rescue.
Referred to program for a variety of reasons
Sixty-minute therapy/clinic sessions are offered throughout the week with patients working in small groups in a heated 90° swimming pool located at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida. Each session consists of a general warm-up followed by strengthening exercises, walking or swimming in the water.
“Everyone adapts to their own ability,” Mistler said. “You don’t have to do it at a set speed or rate, which is great!”
Veterans are referred to participate in aquatic therapy for a variety of reasons that include chronic pain, obesity, metabolic pathologies, depression, PTSD and neurological disorders and conditions, as well as the need to improve their overall physical fitness.
Strengthening, mobility and gentle flexibility
According to Recreation Therapist Danielle Orr, the aquatic therapy program provides Veterans with a unique experience that helps to improve their individual health related goals. It also extends benefits experienced through earlier phases of physical therapy and treatment. And it provides education on strengthening, mobility and gentle flexibility exercises within the water.
“Time within an aquatic therapy session is set-up for Veterans to work on areas of exercise that they feel are important to them, such as additional strengthening, conditioning, mobility or swimming, as well as using the dry-land equipment on the pool deck,” Orr said.
Recreation Therapist John Mikula, certified tactical training instructor, explains that an innovation grant helped provide equipment for the pool deck that gives Veterans an additional means to perform strengthening exercises using their bodyweight as a primary resistance.
“Several hydraulic-based strength machines were added to our pool deck, which provides a somewhat gentle approach to strength training and has proven benefits, especially among older individuals and those with neuromuscular conditions,” Mikula said. “Several specialized pieces of aerobic equipment were also added to the mix as well as a more advanced training area that includes an Olympic-type training section.”
One of the most dynamic aquatic therapy programs in VA
According to Mikula, Veterans who participate in the aquatic therapy program are afforded perhaps one of the most dynamic aquatic therapy exercise experiences within the entire VA system. Tai Chi, yoga and mindfulness are also incorporated into the aquatic therapy program and help with providing additional avenues for participants to enjoy staying physical while practicing their conditioning techniques in the water.
“Using the hydrotones (water dumbbells) and doing bicep curls, arm raises, leg movements, and standing in neck deep water and exercising have helped me see tremendous progress over the past year,” Mistler said. “One of the first things that I was able to work through in aquatic therapy was destressing my body and brain. I was better able to pay more attention to my breathing, which is very important when trying to coordinate your body’s movements in water.
“Aquatic therapy helps promote weight loss, decreases chronic pain, increases range of motion and joint flexibility, improves muscle strength and standing and walking balance, is good for general conditioning, and so much more,” she added. “The hydrostatic pressure of the water also helps increase blood flow and circulation and can also enhance respiratory muscles and pulmonary function. There really are a ton of benefits.”
The North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System is one of the nation’s leading VA healthcare systems, employing more than 5,800 medical professionals and support staff dedicated to providing high quality care to Veterans residing throughout North Florida and South Georgia.