Bodies In Motion: Aquatic Exercise—What’s It Good For? Heidi Stevenson

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A common misconception about aquatic exercise, (such as swimming and aquatic aerobics), is that it is only appropriate for people with medical conditions that keep them from engaging in other, “better” kinds of activity.

Far from being a “lesser” option, aquatic exercise can be beneficial to anyone.

It is indeed appropriate for those who may be prevented from engaging in other kinds of exercise by a wide variety of medical conditions; however, it also provides unique benefits to people in perfectly good health.

Water provides a buoyant environment. Your body weight’s gravitational effect on muscles, joints, and bones is reduced by up to 90%. The water provides a cushioning effect that lessens, (in shallow water), or eliminates, (in deep water), impact to your body without lessening the quality of the exercise.

In fact, the aquatic environment allows you to engage in muscle work that is impossible on land.

You can engage in many of the same exercises, but the opposite muscle contraction will be more challenging. Imagine a bicep curl—on land with a dumbbell, and then in the water with an aqua noodle. Bringing the dumbbell down is the easy part on land; gravity is pulling the dumbbell down to the floor. In the water, gravity is mostly absent, and the aqua noodle floats. Bringing the noodle down in the bicep curl is the difficult part.

Also, water provides multidirectional resistance; it is resisting any movement from all directions.  Water is 800 times as dense as air. This increase in density makes your body work harder through every movement than it would on land, even though the impact inherent in that movement is greatly diminished or eliminated. This ensures that the strength, endurance, and cardiovascular benefits are comparable.

Let’s look at the specific benefits of aquatic exercise for individuals with a variety of different circumstances:

Obesity: For obese individuals, the gravitational effect of weight-bearing exercise on land is enhanced by their additional body weight. Aquatic exercise is done in an environment where that additional stress on their bodies is taken away.

Arthritis: Arthritic individuals are also able to engage in cardiovascular exercise and strength training without the stress on their joints inherent in weight-bearing land exercise. Additionally, aquatic environments tend to be warmer than the environments where land exercise is done, which those with arthritis may find more comfortable.

Injury or Surgery: Because of the lessened or eliminated impact and gravitational effect on muscles, bones, and joints, people are often able to return to exercise in the pool after an injury or surgery before they are permitted to engage in land exercise by their health professionals; aquatic exercise can be utilized for physical rehabilitation after injury or surgery, or as a safe introduction back to physical activity.

Pregnancy: Again, the aquatic environment eliminates most of the extra stress on muscles, joints, and bones that a pregnant individual would experience with land exercise.  Pregnancy also changes a person’s center of balance continually. The aquatic environment is a safe and effective place to engage in balance and stability training throughout pregnancy.

Cross Training: Cross training is important in keeping your body from sustaining overuse injuries or reaching plateaus, whether you are training for a sporting event, trying to improve your overall level of fitness, or trying to lose weight. Aquatic exercise offers an impact free option to include with other higher impact activities as well as the opportunity for unique muscle training that cannot be attained on land. This increases the variety of movement available to a cross trainer.

Aquatic exercise can be a valuable addition to your activity or even your primary activity in a much wider variety of circumstances than this. Discuss your situation with your health provider to determine whether it’s the right option for you.

At the time of this writing, Heidi Stevenson was a certified group fitness instructor, currently teaching yoga, Pilates, and aquatics for the HPER Department and Recreational Sports program at Northern Michigan University, and also taught a wide variety of group fitness classes in Michigan and Pennsylvania over the last 14 years.

Excerpted with permission from the Winter 2010-2011 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. MagazineCopyright 2010, Intuitive Learning Creation. All rights reserved.