The Benefits of Water Workouts

Does exercising in water have the same benefits as exercising outside or in a gym? Simply put, yes. Plus, water workouts can help relieve pain. Water compresses the body, which helps reduce swelling and fluid buildup, relieving inflammation of the joints. For people who live with joint pain, reduced gravity in water assists with mobility and lessens joint impact during exercise.

When our joints are submerged in water, we have a greater range of motion, and the added resistance for submerged movements increases muscle strength and endurance. Water is also safer than land for people living with joint pain because water is a supportive environment, which decreases the risk for falls. It lets you work on proper walking patterns, such as taking longer steps with a straight spine, allowing you to keep your eyes looking forward and not down. Support from the water also helps strengthen muscles when you work on movements that increase your balance.

Aquatic exercises include water aerobics, deep-water movements, yoga, tai chi, and (of course) swimming. They’re often referred to as vertical workouts because most water exercises are done standing up; you do not need to know how to swim or go under water to participate.

“We’re seeing a growing trend in aquatic workouts that range from high-intensity exercises like kickboxing and circuit training to mind/body workouts like tai chi and shiatsu massage,” says Julie See, president of the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) in Nokomis, Florida. “Many people perceive that water exercising is only for seniors. However, every day, we see more and more younger people coming to the pool.”

While many of the people who seek out water exercise are women, See says more men are beginning to participate. “Men generally shied away from pool workouts because they have a preconceived notion that the workout won’t be hard enough,” she says. “But if they give it a try and find the right class, they are usually hooked.”

Many aquatic fitness programs offer modified exercise equipment that you would typically see in a gym, such as handheld weights, rubber tubing, bicycles, and treadmills. In addition, swimming equipment like fins and kickboards are designed to fit different sized people and come in a host of styles to suit specific workouts.

Water is also a great equalizer while exercising. It can help diminish the self-consciousness people may feel when learning a new way to move. “In the water, everyone is equal,” See says. “No one can actually see if you are doing an exercise correctly since everyone is submerged up to their necks. You can only see others’ faces, and most of them are smiling or chatting with their neighbor.”

See has taught both land and water classes and says people are more social during aquatic classes. “Exercising in the water has psychological benefits,” she adds. “The water itself evokes fun and is something many people associate with fond childhood memories.”

Getting started

Before starting a new exercise program, discuss your plan with your health-care provider. He or she may suggest water exercises or classes that are appropriate for you.

To ensure that you learn proper form and technique, find a certified group aquatic exercise instructor or personal trainer or an AEA Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program (AFAP) trained leader.

Begin with a low-level class, and slowly increase the length of time, intensity, and number of classes per week. As with all workouts, watch for signs of overexertion such as chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea. If an exercise hurts, stop or adjust the movement. If you get tired, rest, and remember — it’s not a competition. And especially when you’re starting out, don’t exercise alone in a pool.

Many aquatic instructors suggest participants follow the two-hour pain rule: Some muscle soreness is a normal response to exercise, but if you develop joint pain that lasts for two hours or more after exercising, reduce the intensity or duration during the next class or session. Plus, it is important to keep moving on days when you are not participating in structured classes or personal training. Individuals with arthritis and many related conditions should move every day, on “good” and “bad” days.

What to wear is up to you. A swimsuit is fine, or if you’re more comfortable, wear a T-shirt and workout pants. Because of its popularity, many new swimwear designs are available for water workouts. You can find modest, modern, stylish chlorine-resistant suits such as water capris, skirts, leggings, and water jackets.

Instructors highly recommended that participants wear aquatic shoes to limit the chance of slips and falls on the pool deck and in changing rooms. Aquatic shoes also provide support, cushioning, and traction while you’re in the water. You don’t need to invest a lot of money in shoes when you start a class, however. Lightweight sneakers will work.

If you decide to wear a swim cap, choose a Lycra rather than latex cap. Latex caps prevent heat from escaping your body during exercise and can cause overheating.

The water temperature in pools varies, so it’s a good idea to wear layers of aquatic clothes. Most pools are kept at 80–86°F. The recommendation for aquatic classes is 83–90°F, and for classes focused on arthritis programming, pools usually are warmed to 91–94°F. With the right clothing and after a few minutes of moving, you should begin to feel comfortable.

Water cools your body and prevents overheating, so be sure to warm up in the water before a workout to prevent injuries to muscles and joints. And as with a land workout, you will sweat during water workouts. You will need to stay hydrated, so bring a water bottle to class.

People who live with joint pain may want to exercise in warm water or a therapeutic pool with a temperature of 95–98°F. While this is higher than recommendations for aquatic exercise, it’s okay for therapy and when the only movement is to improve range of motion. The temperature will increase blood flow to your muscles, relaxing them and making the exercise easier.

Many rehabilitation and community facilities offer aquatic arthritis or joint pain programs. They offer supportive, social environments that can assist you as you learn a new way of moving. More importantly, they can help you find the right exercises and programs for your condition and skill level. Therapeutic pools may offer interval classes, which have periods of walking and periods of rest; continuous training classes, during which participants walk at a 70 to 75 percent level of effort throughout the workout; or classes that combine flexibility or strength exercises with walking workouts.

If possible, sign up for a class with a friend. You are more likely to attend regularly if you make a commitment with someone else. But if that’s not doable, don’t let the lack of a partner stop you from signing up.

Fitness goals

The benefits of any exercise program include improved fitness, stronger muscles, weight loss, toning, and more. Numerous studies show that compared with land-based exercises, water workouts burn as many or more calories, so weight loss can occur. When you are immersed to the waist in water, your body bears just 50 percent of its weight; when the water is up to the chest, it’s 25 to 35 percent; and to the neck, 10 percent. The reduced gravity promotes the pumping of blood from the extremities to the heart.

While water significantly lessens an exercise’s effect on the back and joints, vertical exercises help strengthen muscles because water offers greater resistance than air — and in every direction. The resistance can also help with weight management, especially with a water-walking program. A recent study showed that water walking burns more calories as the depth of the water increases. And deep-water running for 30 minutes will burn nearly 100 more calories than land running.

Just as on land, several factors affect how many calories you burn, including depth, speed, the amount of force applied against the water’s resistance, the length of your limbs, and environmental factors such as water temperature, air temperature, humidity, and pool chemicals. The number of calories you burn will also depend on the length of time spent in the water after exercise and individual characteristics like gender, age, and fitness level.

Enjoy your time in the water. You are more likely to continue with a class that you enjoy and see a benefit from, so you may need to try a few options. For people who live with arthritis and other joint-pain conditions, an aquatic exercise program offers great health benefits and few risks.

Want to learn about additional exercises that can help fight pain? Read “Exercise 101: Finding the Right Exercise for Pain Relief,”Time for Yoga: Yoga Benefits for Arthritis,” and “The Power of Tai Chi to Relieve Pain.”

JoAnn Stevelos, MS MPH, is a public-health researcher and health writer. She is director of childhood obesity prevention efforts for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

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