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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Focus on Fitness Focus on Fitness

Everybody Into the Pool!

May 04, 2014

By Paulette Chandler M.D.

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Are you tired of the scorching sun? Hot, humid conditions can take their toll on your fitness program. Why not add a little splash to your daily routine? A water exercise program can cool down the body and tone the muscles while improving cardiovascular fitness.

Anyone can benefit from water exercise, from pregnant women to those with arthritis or recovering from an injury. The buoyancy created by water can reduce the "weight" of a person by up to 90%, putting less stress on weight-bearing joints such as knees and hips. Don't succumb to the misconception that lack of joint stress prevents a rigorous workout in the water.

Another added bonus is improved pain control for sore muscles and joints. Many studies demonstrate that pain is lessened by simple immersion in warm water. Warm-water immersion may decrease the sensitivity of sensory nerve endings, increase circulation close to the skin, increase blood supply to muscles, and increase the metabolic rate, thereby burning fat. In addition, it's relaxing!

The key components of an aqua fitness routine are warm-up stretches, 20 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular and muscle conditioning that gradually increases and decreases in intensity, followed by a cool-down period with more stretches. Try some special water gear for an enhanced water workout.

Take a Walk in the Water

Use different steps, including short quick steps and long steps. When walking forward, step heel to toe; when walking backward step toe to heel. Walk an equal number of laps forward and backward to place equal emphasis on all muscles. When walking sideways, don't turn around to walk your return lap, or you won't work both legs.

You can also move your arms in a variety of ways while walking, but keep your hands submerged in water. You can even try knee touches — touch the opposite knee with your hand or elbow. Add a challenge by walking quickly and bringing your knees up high. Feel the muscles pumping as they work against the water. Try side and back leg lifts with legs straight.

Pay attention to posture and breathing while walking. The back should be straight with the head held erect. Imagine that your head is suspended from above like a puppet. Breathe deeply. Exhale through your mouth and inhale thorough your nose in a relaxed fashion. Blow out your air when you exert the most energy (for example, when lifting knees high).

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Useful Equipment

  • Webbed gloves — Try webbed gloves for added resistance to the hands. The webbing makes the strokes seem harder and makes the muscles work harder. Vary intensity by cupping or flexing the webbed fingers.
  • Aqua bells — Like dumbbells, these are good for upper-body exercises. Try shoulder raises. Hold bells next to your legs and then raise your hands against the water.
  • Aquatic shoes — Aquatic shoes make it easier and safer to do pivots, side steps and grapevine steps. They also improve traction, support and footing while protecting the bottoms of the feet.
  • Flotation belt — Use a flotation belt to run through water using your arms and legs. Deep-water jogging is a nice alternative for injured runners.

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Other Tips

  • Pay attention to how you feel. You may think your heart rate indicates that your intensity is too low when you are actually exercising quite strenuously. If you feel lightheaded or nauseous get out of the water immediately. Don't forget that while exercising in water your heart rate can be reduced by as much as 17 beats per minute, compared with land exercise.
  • Try moving your joints through a wide range of motion in the water. Water is a welcome environment for trying stretches that might be difficult on land. Follow through the complete joint range of motion if possible, but do not force movement.
  • Consider a water fitness class. A wide variety of aquatic classes are available. The YMCA is a good place to start.

Experience the rejuvenating properties of water. Replace land with water for a new twist on your exercise routine.

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Paulette Chandler, M.D., M.P.H. is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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