If you've been looking for a new and refreshing way to get or stay in shape, or if you're tired of sore feet and aching joints, water exercise may be for you. Because it's low impact and can easily be tailored to match your abilities, everyone from athletes to seniors can benefit from water exercise.
Working out in the water can be a great way to gain cardiovascular stamina, improve strength and flexibility, enhance body contours, increase circulation, rehabilitate healing muscles, and control weight.
Taking Advantage of Water
To appreciate why water training works so well, you need to understand water's unique properties. In water, you have almost no gravity. You're relieved of 90 percent of your body weight, so you become buoyant. This frees you to move in new ways. You can float, bob and relax without feeling like you're putting out an effort. Yet water provides 12% to 14% more resistance than air, so moving through it is like having weights all around your body.
Burning Fat, Building Muscle
Unfortunately, in a widely publicized 1987 study on the benefits of water exercise, swimmers reported that they didn't lose any fat or didn't increase their rate of fat loss. But these swimmers swam in cold water, which meant they needed a layer of fat to keep them warm.
Most swimming workouts take place in pools filled with warm water -- 82 to 84 degrees -- vs. typical ocean temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees. In the past, researchers have shown that some people who do rhythmic water exercise, such as water aerobics, are able to burn just as much fat and build just as muscle as they could in land exercise programs.
Let's take a look at some of the most popular workouts and how to maximize their benefits. If you are new to exercise, consult your doctor before starting this or any other exercise program. And for safety reasons, avoid swimming alone.
To make every lap count, consider these facts: A 150-pound person who swims using a standard stroke at a 25-yard-per-minute pace can burn 140 calories in 30 minutes. At a 50-yard-per-minute pace, the same person can burn 250 calories in 30 minutes.
When deciding how to pace yourself in the pool, simply calculate how many laps equal 25 or 50 yards. Then try to complete that number of laps in one minute. For example, to swim 50 yards in one minute in my 15-yard pool, I would need to swim about three laps in one minute. To burn 250 calories, I would have to swim three laps in each minute of a 30-minute workout.
Try to use different strokes to vary the muscles you work. Or consider doing other types of water exercise to keep your workout balanced.
The growing variety of vertical, or upright, water workouts includes water walking or jogging, water aerobics, water toning, water flexibility training, water therapy and rehabilitation, water yoga, deep-water exercise, and wall exercises.
You can effectively strengthen your muscles with vertical water workouts because you experience 75% greater resistance than when you're swimming horizontally. This is because the vertical position maximizes the drag or pull of water against your movements. In traditional swimming, the goal is to minimize drag and glide through the water efficiently.
Here are a few tips and points to keep in mind for vertical water workouts:
- Buoyancy supports the body and allows you to make larger movements than you can on land.
- Intensity increases as you increase the size and speed of your movements.
- Sculling and downward movements of the hands create balance and control.
- Before you start using resistance devices, such as webbed hand mitts, make sure you are balancing your arms and legs to help coordinate and stabilize your moves.
- For good muscle balance, make movements that work the body all around in various planes while maintaining proper body alignment.
- To maintain alignment, keep your abdominals tight to support a long, upright spine and tuck your hips slightly under (particularly when moving backward).
- Avoid holding static stretches in cool water.
- Drink plenty of fluid to avoid dehydration, which you may not notice because you're not feeling or seeing the effects of sweat or body heat.
Try these easy exercises in your pool:
- Jog toward one end of the pool and then push back.
- Jumping jacks: Starting with the legs together, jump out and back.
- Shoulder raises front and side.
- Scissor steps with alternate arm punches.
Originally published November 1999.
Updated by Michael W. Smith, MD, June 25, 2002.
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