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Fall 2013 - Dive Into Fitness with Aquatic Exercise

H2H Fall 2013 dive

It’s not news that exercise has a wide range of health benefits, from boosting your mood and your energy level to decreasing your risk of developing a wide range of health problems. But sticking with the same routine day after day can get old. Sometimes, you’ve got to mix it up and try something new, maybe try your workout in a different place — for instance, in the water.

Not only does water-based exercise — which includes swimming, water aerobics, and water walking — offer all of the same health benefits of land-based exercise, but it also provides a number of benefits unique to the aquatic environment that make it a great option for those with heart problems, arthritis, osteoporosis, back problems and more. So, what sets aquatic exercise apart from its land-based relative?

A Softer Landing

According to Kathy Sanderson, an aquatic fitness instructor with the YMCA of the Triangle, the water is generally a gentler environment for exercise.

“In the water, you don’t have the same impact as on concrete or even a treadmill,” she said. “You can still work through the full range of motion of the joints, but you land more softly and you’re cushioned by the water.”

According to the Aquatic Exercise Association, the natural buoyancy of your body in water means that there is less impact on the joints during exercise, and depending on the depth of the water, your body only bears between 10 to 50 percent of its weight. For example, according to Amy Howes, physical therapist with WakeMed, in waist-deep water, a 200-pound person only bears the weight of about 100 pounds.

“Our participants often find that they can move more freely, that they have a bigger range of movement,” said Sanderson. “Taking a big step on land might be really painful for their joints, but in the water, with the cushioning effect, they can move bigger and that has a trickle effect to getting stronger.”

Adding Resistance

Water provides about 12 times the resistance of air, so each move in the pool can be more challenging for the muscles than it would be on land. In addition, each move in the water works a pair of muscles, as you’re always encountering resistance in the water.

“You work opposing muscle groups with aquatic exercise,” said Sanderson. “So when you’re walking or moving your arms out wide or any exercise submerged under the surface of the water, you work the front and back equally.”

Feeling the Burn (or Not So Much)

Water also cools the body more quickly than air does, according to the Aquatic Exercise Association, which means that even though you may be working hard in the pool, your body will stay cooler than it would during the same level of exercise on land.

In addition, the association notes that heart rate responses when exercising in the water differ from those on land. Typically, aquatic exercisers experience lower pulse rates than they would on land, even though studies have shown that aquatic exercise is not less effective.

This combination of a cooler workout and a lower heart rate can make it easier to work longer in the water, but it can also make it easy to overdo it, said Howes.

“Perceived exertion in the water is generally lower for most people than with landbased exercise,” she said. “Start off slowly with a 20- to 30-minute session, and monitor how you feel after the session and later in the day.”


In the water, there are a nearly endless number of adaptations to various moves to make them suitable for just about every individual situation. The most basic adaptation, said Sanderson, is determining how high to lift your feet.

“Take, for example, jogging in the water. If you need a modification, you could just march,” said Sanderson. “Even if you just barely pick your feet up off the bottom of the pool and put them back down again, you’re still moving. You’re still working against the compression of the water.


H2H Fall 2013 dive doctor

Dr. Graham Snyder, MD, FACEP, offers these water safety tips to make the most of this great low-impact workout.


Never swim alone in an unguarded body of water. Even strong swimmers can suffer medical complications in the water.

Know the depth of any body of water that you are jumping into, and use extreme caution if ever diving into lakes, rivers, or oceans where you cannot see the bottom. In a pool, the water must be crystal clear. If you can't see the bottom of the pool in all depths, the risk for drowning is greater.

Is the pool well-staffed with attentive lifeguards? The busier the pool, the more lifeguards are needed. If a lifeguard appears distracted, immediately notify the pool’s owner or management.

Just because you are in water, you can still become dehydrated. Take frequent breaks if the water is especially warm or while exercising vigorously. Many medications, even over-the-counter medicines, can make you more susceptible to dehydration and overheating.

“The water is a great, wonderfully forgiving place to exercise. If you want to be very aerobic, you can take it to a very high intensity and get your heart rate way up and work really hard. Or, you can glide across the bottom of the pool.”

Sanderson said she encourages participants in her classes to make their own modifications to exercises as well. If an exercise feels uncomfortable, she tells them to modify the movement, just keep good spinal alignment and go for it.

Getting Started

H2H Fall 2013 dive Amy Howes

If you’re new to aquatic exercise, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First, as with any exercise program, make sure you’re cleared by your doctor to participate.

“Although swimming and aquatic exercise are traditionally recommended for lowrisk cardiac patients, there could be potential risk for patients who have suffered a severe heart attack or have chronic heart failure,” said Howes.

Once you’re cleared for aquatic exercise, Sanderson said there are classes available for a wide variety of skill levels and exercise needs. Specifically at the YMCA, Sanderson highlighted two classes that can offer a lower intensity workout.

First, the Active Older Adult class is for anyone who is looking for a “kinder, gentler form of exercise” but who still wants to make sure they get in a good workout; there are no age requirements. Second, Sanderson highlighted a class she and Howes created together called “Special Populations.”

“That class is pretty much low in intensity, but it’s still effective exercise,” she said. “It would be a good option for someone who has been cleared by their doctor, but if they have to be very careful about their blood pressure or their heart rate or they’ve had a joint replacement and they have a limited range of movement but they want to increase it, that class is a great option for them.”

So, if you’re looking for a way to mix up your routine, consider taking the plunge into aquatic fitness. Whether you take a water aerobics class, swim laps or just take a walk in the water, it can be a great option for working your muscles in a new way.