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Is Water Aerobics Right for You?

Aquatic exercise can relieve stress, ease achy joints, improve balance and even help you make friends


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Aquatic exercise is a fun way to work out that doesn’t put pressure on bones, joints or muscles. Water creates natural resistance that supports the weight of the body and reduces impact on joints and muscles. Water exercise and therapy can also reduce intensity of pain, improve range of motion, build strength and generally improve the level of functioning in everyday life. 

“Water exercise can be a good alternative for those who can’t tolerate the stress of land-based exercise,” says Cari Utendorf, a physical therapist at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. “It allows people to exercise with little chance of injury.”

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Here are some situations in which it could benefit you and why.

1. You have joint problems

If you have joint pain or stiffness, arthritis, backaches, achy knees or sore hips, aquatic exercise may not cure your symptoms, but it can give you temporary relief. The buoyancy of water lessens stress on your joints. Water slows movement and allows time to focus on posture and alignment, helps reduce inflammation and improves joint range of motion, all of which can reduce pain.

Julie See, director of education at the Aquatic Exercise Association, says that when your body is immersed in water, the weight-bearing load to your joints is reduced. At mid-rib cage to mid-chest depth — the general recommendation for shallow water classes — the reduction is approximately 75 percent. Immersed to the shoulders, it’s reduced to almost 90 percent. At waist depth, weight bearing is reduced to about 50 percent. Simply adjusting the depth at which you exercise greatly influences your workout results. 

Michael Murray, president of the APTA Academy of Aquatic Physical Therapy and an aquatics specialist at Duke Health, says water therapy is helpful if you want to try to avoid surgery. It can also help you regain movement and motion after surgery. Because you’re lighter in water and your body can float, you’ll be able to exercise for longer than you can on land without hurting your joints. “After surgery, once a physician gives the go-ahead, aquatic therapy can help improve the range of motion of joints and increase the strength of muscles around those joints,” he says.

2. You have heart disease

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) a week of aerobic or heart-pumping physical activity such as running, walking and swimming to remain healthy. Water aerobics can be used simply to get exercise or as a form of therapy. Murray warns, though, that before starting cardiac aquatic exercise, you need to be sure your vital signs are stable, and your doctor has given you the go-ahead. Water exercise is therapeutic and fun, he says, but it can overload your heart if you have a condition that’s not being properly treated.

See explains that aquatic exercise can be an aerobic activity that uses your heart and lungs effectively. Additionally, immersion in water helps the heart transport oxygen more efficiently to your working muscles. Research has found that the exercise heart rate during aquatic exercise is often lower than the heart rate during exercise of the same intensity on land.

Even if you have a cardiac condition, water exercises can be tailored to your specific needs, Murray says. “You can begin with low levels of activity like walking in the water and work your way up to deep water running and swimming.”

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3. You are stressed

Exercise helps relieve stress, and water exercise is no exception. For most people, participating in water exercise and therapy can be a way to decompress. Exercise reduces your body’s level of stress hormones and stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that elevate your mood.

“Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into your aquatic activities can help you relax by stimulating the vagus nerve and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest systems,” See says. “Water has a calming effect for many people, partially due to the tactile stimulation on the skin.

“Movement in warm water can be relaxing and meditative and generally improves your mood,” she adds.

4. You would like to have more energy

Any type of movement can give you more energy, and for those who are unable to exercise on land, water can be a solution. See says cardiovascular exercise makes your heart and lungs work more efficiently, delivering oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. With improved heart and lung function, she says, you’ll have more energy to exercise and perform activities of daily living. Similarly, building strength and endurance, as well as flexibility, allows your body to move more efficiently. “When you’re not having to expend extra energy to move and complete daily tasks, your overall performance improves; you don’t have to work as hard to accomplish the same tasks,” See says.

Exercising in the water can also help improve your sleep. “The more active you are, including being active in the water, the better you’ll sleep, and the better you sleep, the more energy you’ll have,” Utendorf says.

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5. You want to improve your balance

Balance is important, especially as you age. Many older people are afraid that a loss of balance could result in a fall and/or a hip fracture that can be debilitating and life-threatening. With practice and time, Murray says, you can work in the water, a safe environment, to help prevent falls on land. “Practicing balance in a pool allows you more time to react if you do lose your balance, and by training your muscles to react to waves in the water, you’ll build confidence and lessen your fear of falling on land,” he says.

In water, waves created by other people push you around, so even when you’re still, you’re practicing balance. “To build up that balance, you can begin with simple activities like walking in the water and move on to more advanced exercises like marching in place and standing on one leg,” Murray says.

6. You are overweight

If you’re seriously overweight, you may not be able to tolerate the stress of land-based exercise. The buoyancy of water takes that stress off your joints. “When you exercise in water, you put less weight on your joints, making it possible, if you’re carrying extra weight, to increase your endurance and spend more time working out,” Murray says.

7. You want to make more friends

Any group exercise, including water exercise, builds community. See says you’ll meet people with similar needs and find support and bond. For many, she notes, especially older adults, time in the water offers a fun way to interact with others while improving their health.  

“Doing pool exercise is a great way to socialize, because people are more motivated when they’re having fun,” Murray says. 

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