At age five, Carolyn Smith’s mother watched as she took her first steps in the heated pool of her elementary school.
Smith was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects body movement and muscle coordination. Walking on land is almost impossible without crutches.
Decades later she became wheelchair bound. Through the encouragement of a friend, she signed up for adaptive aquatic exercise at the Abbot and Linda Brown Western Center at CSUN, which became operational in spring 2003 and is an extension of the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled
For many people with disabilities, chronic pain, or temporary disabilities, land based exercise can be painful and sometimes impossible.
“Water exercise is my reward for the land exercise,” Smith said.
The water allows her to move freely without any pain or discomfort. She feels safe in the water.
She comes to the Brown Center four days a week from Tujunga and although the drive can take up to two hours each way because of public transportation, she considers it an important part of her overall health.
Dr. Peggy Roller, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy agrees that aquatic exercise has many benefits. She added that although it is very valuable it is not offered at all facilities.
The benefits do carry significantly over to land many people get stronger, and need less assistance doing daily activities such as bathing and dressing themselves.
“It is sometimes used as a beginning level exercise for people who cant support their weight,” she said.
Mainly, it unloads the body of weight because of the buoyancy that the water offers.
Adaptive aquatic exercise helps numerous conditions. It can help people who have had strokes, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and people with poor balance.
It benefits people with perceptual problems. Exercising in water improves their balance and coordination.
It can also help post surgical patients. This includes people with hip or back injuries. These individuals cannot tolerate joint compression.
In the water they are able to get a better range of motion. A person can build strength and endurance without pain.
“It is also used for people with arthritis,” she said. She said arthritis limits the ability to walk and exercise in weight-bearing exercise.
According to Roller, aquatic exercise helps decrease the joint pain. It helps them move easier and enables them to exercise for longer periods of time.
The warm water also helps decrease swelling in the joints.
Ann Vann Nada has been a client at the Brown Center for eight years for her arthritis. She started in the land program and later joined aquatic exercise.
“The experience has changed my life,” she said.
After years of having arthritis, one day she got up to realize that she was unable to walk.
She immediately signed up for aquatic exercise. After one month of the program, she was able to walk again.
“I have not been in a wheelchair since,” she said.
Vann Nada graduated from CSUN in the 1970s, and she is a resident of North Hills.
She continues to stay active by taking Yoga classes, hiking and weight lifting on her own time.
Margaret Vernallis is also a client of the Brown Center for arthritis.
A former psychologist at the University Counseling Services, she takes the aquatic classes to maintain her health. She considers it good exercise.
Most of the clients are Northridge residents and there is a sense of a close community at the center.
“I have met many friends here,” said Adrianne Akers. Akers is a Psychology major at CSUN, and is scheduled to graduate this May.
She said being around other disabled people has given her a new perspective on her own disability and that aquatic exercise is something she would like to do for the rest of her life.
“It has been the most affective physical therapy so far,” she said. It not only improves her physical ability, but it has improved her self-image as well.
She said it is important because it is adaptive aquatic therapy for her own disability, Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, or AMC.
The Brown center provides six different aquatic classes tailored to individual’s needs.
It is equipped with three swimming pools and a spa, set at different temperatures. Each semester there is about 48 sessions a week in the pools.
“One of the most unique things about the center is the movable floor pool,” said John Banola, clinical coordinator of land and aquatics at the Brown Center.
The floor can be raised from its depth of seven feet to any height. It can be raised to be even with the floor of the room.
This enables people to be transferred into water wheelchairs, and then be easily rolled in the water. The temperature is set at 90 to 92 degrees.
The cool pool is around 84 degrees and is designed for individuals who are sensitive to heat.
“For people with multiple sclerosis, heat brings fatigue and exhaustion,” said Dr. Belinda Stillwell, Director of Aquatic Programs at the Brown Center.
The third pool is the main pool, where most of the group exercise programs are conducted. They have two under water treadmills.
For Smith, using the water treadmill was the first time she ever used a treadmill.
The center also has a relaxing whirlpool spa. It is helpful for people with joint or muscle pain.
According to Dr. Roller, warm water helps decrease the pain, and also helps to increase circulation.
Approximately 250 to 300 clients are signed up for land and aquatic classes at the Brown Center.
About half are enrolled in aquatic exercise. This number includes CSUN students, and clients from the community.
According to Stillwell, CSUN students receive first priority for the classes. Those individuals who don’t need assistance are second in line. People who need helpers get paired with CSUN students.
Unfortunately, because there are not enough helpers to fulfill the demand, there is a long waiting list.
“There are hundreds of people on the waiting list,” Stillwell said.
It can take up to one year to get in, she said.
Family and friends are encouraged to participate as helpers, and you can bring your own caregivers.
For Smith, there are good days and bad days. Days when she is willing to go along with the exercise, and days when she is just too tired.
She agrees that this program has given her a better overall attitude, and she will continue to come to the center as long as she can.