If you’ve been longing for a way to make exercise more enjoyable, a way to keep your workouts from feeling like an unwelcome chore, you may be in for a pleasant surprise.
Today more than ever, swimming pools are becoming an important component of fitness offerings across the country, with water activities serving not only as a healer but also a preventer of maladies. And, as a bonus, aquatic workouts can actually be fun.
“Swimming activities have long been seen primarily as geared toward older people who can’t exercise safely on land, but younger people are now flocking to the pool, too,” says Melissa Stover, a group fitness instructor at Sentara RMH Wellness Center in Harrisonburg. “We’re introducing more fun ways to work out in the water and trying to get away from the idea that pool-based exercise is only for older adults.”
Clark Baumbusch, MD, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon for Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, says he never tells a patient that he or she cannot swim.
“Swimming can be a lifelong experience,” Dr. Baumbusch says. “I don’t think there’s any orthopedic condition that prevents you from swimming, or that swimming will aggravate. For some of my patients who are runners, there comes a point when I tell them they really shouldn’t be running, due to chronic problems with their knees. But you can find a swimming stroke for almost any patient, regardless of their muscle structure problem, age or fitness level.”
A Long List of Benefits
The Sentara RMH Wellness Center offers more than 25 water aerobics classes taught by a full staff of nationally certified instructors. In addition, many of the fitness activities people traditionally have enjoyed on land—such as Zumba, yoga and even ballet—have been repurposed for the water.
Aquatic activities, as well as swimming in general, can be beneficial for a long list of health issues. Such benefits are both proactive and reactive, involving a mix of short- and long-term gains.
“Even if you’re in great shape, exercising in water is good for you,” says Stover. “You have to work so differently in the water than you do when you’re exercising on land. It’s really amazing what water workouts can achieve.”
Getting in the water, Dr. Baumbusch notes, helps people with chronic pain or swelling associated with osteoarthritis by taking the weight load off their joints—in contrast to the much greater weight loads associated with land activities such as hiking. Water exercises also boost participants’ cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) fitness, enhance flexibility, and build endurance. In addition, exercising in water helps active people overcome exercise plateaus and can be a potent weapon in tackling or preventing obesity.
“People who are heavier generally complain that they can’t tolerate land-based exercise programs due to joint pain,” notes Dr. Baumbusch. “But they often do much better in the pool, allowing them to burn calories in a relatively safe way.”
Pool activities also can benefit people with high blood pressure, since it takes less effort for blood to flow back to the heart when the body is submerged in water. Water-based exercises can even help people improve balance and posture without any fear of falling. And spending time in the water can actually be better for strength work, since it provides a more natural resistance-training experience than weightlifting, for example.
“The resistance in water-based exercise is the same throughout the movement,” Dr. Baumbusch says. “So you’re strengthening opposing muscle groups equally.”
Aquatic activities can be particularly helpful for those with rotator cuff (shoulder) tendinitis, for people with diabetes (since the pressure from water can aid circulation), and for anyone looking to minimize fatigue and improve sleep quality.
“For some people, the only time they’re free from pain is when they’re in the water,” observes Stover. “Since people often don’t keep up with exercise that is painful, water activities can help these people lead more active lives.”
Another benefit of water-based exercise involves comfort. Working out in a pool keeps you cool, with far less sweating, Stover adds, so it can be more comfortable in that respect than land-based exercise.
Dr. Baumbusch emphasizes that it’s important for people to have variety in their workout regimens, and aquatic activities are the perfect complement to land exercise, no matter what a person’s fitness goals may be.
“A freestyle stroke, for example, uses many more muscle groups than jogging,” he notes. “Swimming is one of many forms of therapy that can be used to rehabilitate someone after surgery or an injury, or just to improve overall fitness. And swimming is just one of a large number of water activities they can enjoy.”
Innovative water-based exercise options include activities like yoqua (water yoga), aqua barre and aqua Zumba—which Stover refers to as a “party in the water,” complete with dance music. Interest in these and other pool-based classes continues to grow as the benefits of water activities become more familiar to younger members, she says.
“I’m always encouraging people of all ages to get in the water,” Stover says. “Even just walking laps in the water is a great workout.”
Dr. Baumbusch says some of his patients request water activities as part of their healing process, a request he is happy to oblige.
“It’s an efficient way to exercise,” he says. “To some extent, you get more ‘bang for your buck’ with water exercises.”
One great feature of water exercise, Stover adds, is that you just need yourself and a bathing suit to have a good workout. Equipment and classes can certainly add variety to the experience, but they aren’t necessary, thanks to the natural resistance and buoyancy of water.
“Whatever your age, getting in a pool is kind of like reliving a part of childhood,” Stover says. “People just naturally tend to have fun in the water. And getting a great workout while being able to enjoy yourself is an ideal exercise experience.”
If you would like to explore how water activities might be a great workout option for you, talk to your healthcare provider, physical therapist or fitness coach.