Water exercise is a type of activity that is done in a body of water such as a pool, lake, or ocean. Limited water exercise can be done in a spa or hot tub.
The purpose of water exercise is to put the body through activity without adding extra stress and strain on the joints. Though people have been swimming and playing water polo for a long time, water exercise grew out of therapeutic exercise for people recovering from injury or conditions such as bursitis and sciatica. Water exercise also is used for arthritis patients.
Anyone can participate in water exercise. Swimming is considered an activity that spans all generations, from infants to octogenarians. Water aerobics, water walking, water yoga, and water tai chi are activities that older adults enjoy. Young people who have had joint or back injuries may participate for a short time as a rehabilitation activity. Water jogging has become an exercise that even athletes are engaging in because it offers a superior workout with little risk of injury.
Water exercise classes began in the 1950s and became very popular with formal water aerobics class offerings in the 1970s and 1980s.
Water aerobics classes have been offered at pools in the United States for more than 50 years. Water exercise has progressed to other varieties such as water ballet and various forms of water yoga. These types of exercise have been popularized and targeted as forms of gentle stretching and motion exercise for muscles and joints.
Exercise in the water is a low-impact activity that puts less stress on the joints. When the entire body is underwater, it experiences almost zero gravity since the water carries 90% of the body's weight. This buoyancy helps older adults by improving their balance and strength.
Water also offers resistance. It has 12%–14% more resistance than air. This gentle friction aids in strengthening muscles and joints, especially for those recovering from an injury. Resistance can be increased by wearing wrist or ankle weights in shallow water to offer a more challenging workout.
Like land-based exercise, water exercise can increase cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and increase energy. It can also help people lose body fat. Exercising in the water can improve depression, anxiety, and self-esteem. It enhances flexibility, strengthens muscles, and improves circulation. Moreover, the hydrostatic pressure of the water helps increase heart and lung function. It also can encourage better blood flow to the muscles, especially the legs, much like support hosiery does.
Some activities in the water are done by individuals, such as swimming, water jogging, and water walking. Other activities can be done in a group. Those include water polo, water aerobics, water yoga, water tai chi, and water pilates. None of these individual and group activities, except swimming, require skill in the water.
Water jogging is a deep-water workout that is done in water over the jogger's head. In order to stay afloat and keep the body upright, joggers wear a buoyancy belt with special floats that keep the person's feet off the bottom of the pool or lake and keep the head above the surface of the water. Water jogging can offer a very intense workout as the jogger does jumping jacks or moves the legs in movements that mimic jogging, cycling, or cross-country skiing on land. These activities place added demand on the heart and lungs, as well as on the jogger's ability to keep his or her balance.
Water exercise is often suggested for people who are obese. It puts less stress on the joints and fosters more active participation because participants find exercising in water is easier to do. A 2005 study showed that exercising in water to lose weight should be done in warm, not cold water. The researchers found that participants ate more after exercising in cold water than they did after exercising in warm water.
People who have arthritis often find exercising in warm water easier to do than on land. The warm water soothes stiff joints and muscles and helps people warm up before activity. Warm water raises body temperature, causing the blood vessels to dilate, thus increasing circulation. Water exercises for these patients can help knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and even ankles and hands. Whatever body part is affected should be submerged in water, and all movements should be done slowly.
People with osteoarthritis often can exercise at higher intensities than they could on a mat on land. A study in 2003 found that not only were osteoarthritis patients who exercised in water able to improve their walking ability on land, but they also increased their independence.
Before starting any exercise program, older adults should check with their doctors and explain the types of activities they want to do. It is important when starting a new exercise regime to begin slowly and build up gradually. Older adults should go to the pool three times a week and start by doing a few repetitions or a couple of laps, if swimming. Gradually, the person can increase swimming time to 20 or 30 minutes or exercise to 45 minutes.
Little is needed in order to participate in water exercise besides swimwear. Some people may want to wear a swimming cap or goggles, but usually those are worn by people who swim laps or engage in water polo. Some swimmers may want to use swim fins or a kickboard.
Water exercise is a low-impact activity, however, if done vigorously, it may be a relatively high-intensity activity using multiple muscle groups that raises the heart and respiratory rate. As such, individuals should begin their exercise regimen slowly and progress toward longer periods of exercise and intensity, while improving cardiovascular fitness. A period of stretching and warm-up activity should be performed and an after-exercise cool down should be conducted at the end of the workout.
Because exercising in water is easier to do, sometimes beginners can do too much. It is important to warm up prior to the more vigorous part of the exercise session and to cool down afterwards. Warm ups should include stretches in the areas that will be exercised. Older adults should learn the difference between muscle pain and sore muscles. Muscle pain is more intense and lasts longer than a week. If that occurs, older adults should see their healthcare providers.
Most public or therapeutic pools keep water temperatures in the safe range, usually 84–88°F (29–31°C). Home indoor pools and spas should maintain the same temperature. Spas are usually hotter, so older adults should limit their time in hot water to a few minutes. They may be able to stay in a warm pool safely for far longer. In addition, older adults may not realize that the water is too hot.
For water aerobics or other structured activity, a qualified instructor is essential. If older adults have specific problems, such as arthritis, then the instructor should have some knowledge of the disease. The Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program has qualified instructors who teach at YMCAs and community pools across the United States.
Older adults should never engage in water exercise without someone else near the pool. Most community pools, lakes, and beaches have lifeguards. Therapeutic pools have a therapist available to instruct in the proper exercise techniques. These pools also have pool attendants who keep track of people's time in the pool and are available in case of an emergency.
People who participate in water exercise can expect to have better flexibility, stronger muscles, and improved circulation. Participants can also have lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Some people can lose weight using this method of exercise. Most importantly, older people who regularly participate in water exercise have less depression and improved self-esteem, as well as more independence as they gain confidence in a stronger body. Many people report fewer falls after engaging in regular water exercise.
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American Medical Association, 330 N. Wabash Ave., Ste 39300, Chicago, IL, 60611, (800) 621-8335, http://www.ama-assn.org .
American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 N. Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA, 22314, (703) 684-2782, (800) 999-2782, Fax: (703) 684-7343, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.apta.org .
National Athletic Trainers' Association, 1620 Valwood Pkwy., Ste. 115
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President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.presidentschallenge.org .
U.S. Water Fitness Association, PO Box 243279, Boynton Beach, FL, 33424, (561) 732-9908, Fax: (561) 732-0950, email@example.com, http://www.uswfa.com .
Janie F. Franz
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD