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Take the water challenge

Last updated: July 2008

There's an image of water workouts as only for people who are older or have physical limitations," says Julie See, president and director of education for the Aquatic Exercise Association. But, she says, "Water can challenge any ability level." That's because it offers more resistance than air to your muscles, which also have to work against buoyancy, or the tendency to float.

Walking, running, or lifting weights in a pool is often safer than doing it on land. That's an advantage for those with back or joint problems, and people who are frail, overweight, or pregnant.

Another advantage of working out in a pool is that the experience is cooling, energizing, and, because of the buoyancy, literally uplifting. So aquatic exercises can seem less tedious and draining than their gravity-bound counterparts.

Why a water workout?

Aquatic exercises take advantage of water's unique properties to essentially turn it into a piece of exercise equipment.

Buoyancy. As you walk on land, your foot strikes the ground with the force of two to five times your weight, which can strain your back, hips, knees, and ankles. But when you are submerged in water at waist level, the impact of walking on your body is half as much as on land. It's one-tenth as much when the water is up to your shoulder.

That protection can help prevent injury and allows people with arthritis, fibromyalgia, or other forms of muscle or joint pain to reap exercise benefits without the stress of land-based workouts. And it helps explain why a trial of 64 people with osteoarthritis of the knee, published in the January 2008 issue of the journal Physical Therapy, found that water-based exercises lessened pain and improved walking better than land-based exercises.

Water's buoyancy also makes it possible to move your body in ways not easy on land. That can help you boost your flexibility, especially if you have stiff or painful joints.

For example, people with arthritic hips may find they are able to lift their legs higher because of the buoyancy of water, allowing them to expand their range of motion. It can also provide a safety net, allowing even those with impaired balance to get a good workout.

Resistance. Water offers roughly 10 times more resistance to motion than air does, forcing you to work harder to move through it. That allows you to burn more calories and get a better aerobic workout than from similar "dry" exercises done in an equal amount of time-or to get comparable benefits from a shorter workout. The cooling, stimulating effect of the water, plus the reduced strain on the joints, may also encourage you to work out harder or longer.

The greater resistance allows you to build cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength simultaneously. And because water provides resistance in all directions, you can exercise multiple muscles during the same exercise. For example, straight-leg lifts on land tone only the front thigh muscle. But leg lifts in the water also strengthen the hamstrings, at the back of the thigh, as you force your leg down.

Water resistance also provides sensory feedback, a benefit to people with neurological problems stemming from a stroke or cerebral palsy. And the greater support can make exercise more comfortable for people with certain injuries.

Submersion. Your body is usually at least partly submerged during water workouts, and you aren't surrounded by mirrors. That can make it appealing to people who are intimidated or embarrassed by being exposed during other forms of exercise. Moreover, because water is forgiving, you don't need perfect form or coordination to achieve good results.

Follow these safety tips

Although water workouts are safe for most people, get screened by a health professional first if you have heart or lung disease, since water pressure can increase the stress on the heart and lungs. Use a vest, belt, or other flotation device in the deep end so you won't struggle to keep your head above water. Here are other simple guidelines:

  • Don't go it alone. Just as with swimming, never exercise in the water by yourself.
  • Stay hydrated. Bring a plastic bottle and drink water before, during, and after a workout. It's easy to forget that you're sweating when you're in the water.
  • Wear shoes. For shallow-water workouts, wear cotton sneakers or water shoes to gain traction, provide better cushioning, and protect your feet.

Finding a class

Check with your local YMCA, community center, or private fitness center to find an aquatic exercise class. Observe a class or try one out before making a commitment. Give yourself time to get used to the water and the workouts. As with many activities, aquatic exercise is a skill that takes more than a class or two to master.

For more information, including some exercises to try, go to the Web site for the Aquatic Exercise Association or to the aquatic physical therapy section of the American Physical Therapy Association's Web site.


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