When I think of aquatic fitness, I think of the 80s—both the age of little old ladies in flower-print swim caps participating in it as well as the decade in which it seemed the most popular. After some research, I learned that the exercise methodology has moved away from the image of water-logged biddies in spandex and has become a more progressive and helpful fitness tool with an estimated 2.5 million practitioners country-wide. These few million people have discovered that water-resistance based workouts have multiple benefits, including being a good way to change up a traditional workout regimen, a less strenuous way to incorporate strength training, and a helpful tool in rehabbing an injury.
1) Change up your workout
Whether you’re an elite athlete or a novice to the gym, adding in aquatic training can aid your body. Studies have shown that participants can get the same results as a land-based workout in the water but with a decrease in stress on the bones, joints, and ligaments. Runners in particular have learned that adding in a water-based plyometric routine can be extremely useful. Runners typically include land-based plyo workouts into their workouts in order to increase muscle power and speed. The problem that often arises with an inclusion of plyometrics is that they are hard on an athlete’s body and they inadvertently subject themselves to injuries like calf cramps, IT band tightness, and Achilles strains. In a 2007 Oklahoma State University study, researchers Stemm and Jacobson found no significant strength and performance differences between the groups performing plyometrics on land versus in the water, while the athletes in the pool had the added perk of having less stress on their body.
The same benefits apply to anyone who is trying to add variation to a mundane workout schedule while still getting great exercise. Some added perks are that the hydrostatic pressure of the water helps with blood circulation as well as aids in ridding the body of built-up lactic acid. That same pressure also helps reduce edema, or swelling, in the body. In addition, people who exercise in the water have improved pulmonary function, bolstering their lung strength because it is 60% more difficult to inhale when the chest is submerged in water.
2) Strength Training
While most people don’t think of aquatics training as being very strenuous, strength training in the water has become more and more popular. In the water, strength training is typically done in terms of resistance as opposed to terms of weight that would be used in a similar land-based workout. Being in the water means the body is constantly surrounded by resistance due to the fact that water is denser than air, but additional items like jogging belts and pool noodles can help create more resistance when in the water. The larger the piece of equipment, the more resistance to the muscles and more derived strength therefrom.
Exercise equipment also helps with balance and stability and may help exercisers achieve what they may not have been able to on a land-based training regimen. Aquatic strength training, with or without added equipment, has been proven to help strengthen muscles, stabilize the core, and increase range of motion while having minimal impact on the joints and ligaments. Weights can also be added to an aquatic setting. Dumbbells and barbells can be introduced to add variability to an athlete’s workouts to build strength during a workout, not to mention the more traditional resistance bands.
Strength training in the water can be used to help all age ranges and ability levels. In her article “Spas: Not Just for Sitting Anymore,” author Monique Acton recounts her experiences working with 93-year-old Alma who had interest in improving her balance and stability upon facing the prospect of living alone after her husband’s passing. Acton customized workouts for Alma to do in her spa to help build muscle and help her feel more fit and stable. On the opposite end of the spectrum, athletes have recently begun adapting CrossFit exercise to the pool, mirroring the resistance training that takes place in a traditional CrossFit class. This incredibly high intensity workout was shown to have the same benefits as the regular class, all with the bonuses that come with training in the water.
3) Rehab an injury
Most serious athletes will experience some level of acute injury during the course of their training, whether it’s a sprain, fracture, or dislocation. Joints and ligaments are often the culprit of these frustrating fitness setbacks and can really derail athletic training. Traditionally, athletes are just asked to rest and relax in order to recover from such an injury. While rest is important, athletes experience muscle decrease as well as a loss in their cardiovascular fitness just weeks into inactivity. However, many athletes have a trouble adjusting to a relatively stagnant lifestyle and end up returning too soon to exercise, only to reinjure themselves. This is where aquatic training can come in handy.
Depending on the injury, athletes can almost immediately begin rehabilitation in the water because they don’t have the strain of gravity on their joints, bones, and ligaments. Beginning an aquatic-based exercise regimen also means that athletes can maintain their cardio function without the possibility of taking a fall that will reinjure them—a prominent worry with land-based fitness routines. The ever-helpful hydrostatic pressure also helps to reduce pain and swelling in the body. Adhering to an aquatic based rehabilitation program means that athletes experience less down time and will be able to return to a normal training schedule once recovered quicker than someone who had simply rested while waiting for the injury to heal.
So put aside your preconceived notions about aquatic fitness. Not just for unsteady geriatrics, the water provides important variance to traditional workout schedules, an excellent venue for strength training, as well as a great place to rehab an injury. Go ahead and sign up for a class at the gym. Ask your coach to incorporate the pool into your routine. Or just get your own equipment and jump in your pool at home. Your body will thank you.
For more helpful information, check out the Aquatic Exercise Association.