The New Wave of Watery Workouts

Get wet and get fit with aquatic exercise

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Last one in the water is a ... Remember this challenge from your childhood? For today's fitness-conscious adults, it has new meaning. Don't be the last person to discover the new wave of water workouts -- for strength and cardio training, flexibility, relaxation, rehabilitation, and weight management.

"We're seeing growth in both ends of the spectrum [of aquatic workouts], from high-intensity exercises like kickboxing and circuit training to mind/body workouts like ai chi, which combines tai chi and shiatsu massage," says Julie See, president of the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) in Nokomis, Fla. "We're working against a perception that aquatic exercise is just for old people, not the young and fit. With younger people coming into the water, we're starting to see a lot of sport-specific training and one-on-one personal training."

"If it's been a decade or more since you had a water fitness class, you'll see many changes," says Jane Katz, EdD, associate professor of health and physical education, City College of New York, and author of Aquafit: Water Workouts for Total Fitness. "Back then it would have been traditional skills of breathing, floating and swimming, which are still taught today, but with the addition of stretching and vertical exercises" done in a standing position.

Another difference, she says, is the abundance of exercise equipment. A lot of landlubber gear has made its way to the pool: handheld weights, rubber tubing, even bicycles and treadmills. Plus, the old aquatic stand-bys like fins and kickboards are no longer "one-size-fits all." They're engineered in a host of styles to suit specific applications.

Who Can Benefit From Water Exercise?

Water exercise can benefit virtually everyone, says Katz. A former Olympian, she teaches fitness and swimming to New York City firefighters and police officers and also has a special fondness for a class for women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Athletes use water to rehabilitate after injury or to cross-train. People with arthritis or other disabilities that inhibit land exercise use water to improve fitness and range of motion and to relieve pain and stiffness.

Age and physical condition aren't issues in the water. Kids love to play in water without realizing it's good for them. Seniors who rely on a walker or wheelchair on land can stand in water with the help of flotation belts and water's buoyancy. Water exercises provide less stress on the bodies of pregnant women.

Also not at issue is the ability to swim: Most water workouts consist of exercise done in a vertical position (with the bonus of keeping your hair dry).

Water's buoyancy accommodates both the fit and unfit. Water cushions stiff and painful joints or fragile bones that might be injured by the impact of land exercises. When immersed to the waist, your body bears just 50% of its weight; immersed to the chest, it's 25%-35%; and to the neck, 10%. In addition, says See, the lower gravity promotes the return of blood to the heart from the extremities.

While water significantly reduces exercise's impact to the back and joints, running and other vertical shallow-water exercises do cause some impact. That's one reason experts advise wearing shoes. "Initially, any type of shoe will work," says See. "You don't want to invest a lot of money when you start an exercise program." For starters, she suggests lightweight sneakers such as Keds. "Once you get hooked on water, which usually takes a couple of weeks, invest in a better shoe."

Water provides at least 12 times greater resistance than air, and in every direction. "No matter which way you move, it challenges you," says Katz. "You don't need equipment, you don't need an Olympic-sized pool. All you need is your body."

Water cools your body and prevents overheating. See points out that even in 80- to 85-degree water, the recommended temperature for exercise, you should warm up in the water before your workout to prevent injury. Just as with a land workout, you will sweat during water exercises, so it's important to drink water.

Intimidation may not be the first thing you think of when you consider the differences between land and water exercise. But it's important, because concern about appearance or proper technique prevents many people from being physically active.

"Water is democratic," says See. "Once you're in the pool, we're all the same. There's less intimidation than walking into an aerobics studio surrounded by mirrors. You don't have to wear a swimsuit. If you're more comfortable, wear Lycra pants and a T-shirt. And it doesn't matter if you're on the wrong foot. As long as you're moving, you're getting the benefit."