Welcome

Author/Instructor Photo

Christine Alexander is the author of 2 books on water exercise each published by Human Kinetics.

Water Fitness Progressions (2019) was written for water fitness instructors and aquatic personal trainers. It describes how to use periodization to help class participants and clients progress in their level of fitness. It contains lesson plans that illustrate how to progressively increase intensity for both cardiorespiratory endurance and strength training.

Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography (2011) was written for water fitness instructors. It has 36 class ideas for shallow water exercise and 36 class ideas for deep water exercise. Individuals may find the exercise descriptions and photos useful for building a personal exercise routine.

New Year’s Resolution: Exercise

According to the Statista Global Consumer Survey the Top New Year’s Resolution for 2023 is to exercise more. We all know that exercise is good for us, but we also know that New Year’s Resolutions are frequently broken. Why do people so often stop exercising? According to an article in Diabetes in Control, the reasons are (1) A perceived lack of time, (2) Exercise related injuries and (3) Exercise is not fun (which is often due to starting at an exercise intensity that is too high for their fitness level). Here are some suggestions to deal with each of these problems:

(1) A perceived lack of time. People who successfully incorporate exercise into their lives often dedicate a specific time in their schedule for working out. They plan to exercise at 9:00 AM 3 times a week, or at 6:30 PM after work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then they don’t schedule anything else for those times. An easy way to do this is to sign up for a class that is offered at the time that is most convenient for you. People don’t often think of water exercise as an option in January, but exercising in an indoor heated pool has its advantages over going for a jog outdoors in cold weather in the dark. According to an article in Healthy Body at Home, it takes an average of 59-66 days to create a new habit, so make an effort to stick with your class for 2 months.

(2) Exercise related injuries. The hydrostatic pressure of the water slows movement down, which greatly reduces the risk of injury during water exercise. It also reduces the risk of falling. Accidents can happen anywhere though, so make sure your pool is staffed with lifeguards.

(3) Exercise is not fun. Do you remember how much fun you had playing in the water as a child? For many people, water exercise brings back that sense of fun. At the same time you can achieve intensity levels that allow you to meet your fitness goals. That means it is possible to start at an exercise intensity that is too high for your fitness level, which can be discouraging. Instead it is a good idea to start at a moderate level (you could do this for a long time), and progress to working somewhat hard (you are starting to feel it), and then hard (making an effort to keep up), before progressing to very hard with high intensity intervals.

Here are some guidelines to help you work through these progressions. In shallow water the base moves are walk, jog, kick, rocking horse, cross-country ski, and jumping jacks. Walking is good for warming up and cooling down. Jog, kick, rocking horse, cross-country ski, and jumping jacks all have multiple variations. (1) Jog. You can jog with the feet hip distance apart or wide. You can cross the midline in front with an inner thigh lift or cross the midline in back with hopscotch. You can lift the knees in front or the heels in back. (2) Kick. You can kick forward, kick across the midline, kick side to side, or kick backward. (3) Rocking horse. Rocking horse can be done front to back or side to side. (4) Cross-country ski, jumping jacks and all the base moves can be varied by using different arm movements or different foot positions. While performing these moves, your heart rate and breathing rate should increase noticeably. Your muscles will feel like they are working, but you could maintain this level for a while before having to stop. You may compare this to a brisk walk.

Increase the Range of Motion. When working at a moderate pace becomes easier, it’s time to go to the next stage. Large moves take more effort than smaller moves. Increasing the range of motion increases the intensity to somewhat hard. Get the knees high in your jog and pump the arms in big movements. Start your inner thigh lift with the feet wide apart and lift the inner thigh high. Start your hopscotch with the feet wide too. Kick higher – front, side or back. Lift your knees high in front and your heels high in back with your rocking horse. Perform cross-country ski with your full range of motion. Take your feet as wide as possible in your jumping jacks and cross the legs in the center. Focus on achieving your full, pain-free range of motion. At this level your heart rate, breathing pattern and muscles are telling you that you are working hard. You have to breathe through your mouth since nose breathing is not enough to give you the oxygen you need. You are past the point of feeling like you could do the exercise all day.

Add Speed. When increasing the range of motion becomes more comfortable, it’s time to add speed. Faster moves increase the intensity level to hard. The tendency, however, is to decrease the range of motion as speed is increased. You work much harder if you maintain the same full range of motion while speeding up. Pay attention to what you are doing to avoid slowing down. Your heart is pounding, you are breathing hard and you would rather breathe than talk. You can only say 2-3 words before you have to take a breath. This intensity is not comfortable and cannot be maintained for a long time.

Add Acceleration. Once your body gets used to working hard, it’s time to push it up to very hard by adding acceleration to your moves. There are two ways to add acceleration. (1) Accelerate off the pool floor, or jump. Take your jog to a leap and your wide jog to a frog jump. Perform your inner thigh lift and hopscotch with a rebound. Rebound with your kicks as well. Jump and tuck your feet under you with cross-country ski. With jumping jacks, jump and touch your heels together before landing with your feet wide apart. (2) Accelerate against the water’s resistance, or add more force to the move. Take your jog to a steep climb by stretching out your arms and pressing alternate hands down while at the same time lifting the knees high and then pressing the heels down toward the pool floor, as if climbing a steep mountain with trekking poles. Lift your inner thigh with power as you press the opposite hand down forcefully toward the thigh. Perform a high kick powering the leg on the downward phase or power both upward and downward. Kick side to side with arms and legs opposite, adding power to the move. Instead of rebounding as you kick side to side, you can stay grounded, and you might be surprised at how hard it is. Karate front kicks and side kicks also involve using force against the water. Kicks backward, cross-country ski and jumping jacks can all be performed with power. Try the cross-country ski low in the water so that more of your body must push against the water’s resistance. Be mindful about what you are doing because the harder you push against the water, the harder the water pushes back. Forget talking at this level. You may be able to belt out one word at a time, but you don’t want to because breathing is your goal. Your muscles are screaming for oxygen and therefore your breathing pattern and heart rate is rapid. This intensity level is reserved for shorter intervals, and you are so glad that there is a limit.

This description of aquatic exercise intensity levels comes from the Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual. Lesson plans that demonstrate how to progress through these intensity levels can be found in Water Fitness Progressions. Good luck with your New Year’s Resolution to exercise more. See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

The Benefits of Ai Chi

Ai Chi (“energy of love”) is a water exercise and relaxation program that combines deep breathing and slow, large movements, performed in continuous, flowing patterns. It was created by Mr. Jun Konno of Japan and further developed by Ms. Ruth Sova in the United States. In spite of the similarities in names, Ai Chi is not a variation of Tai Chi. It has 20 movements: Contemplating, Floating, Uplifting, Enclosing, Folding, Soothing, Gathering, Freeing, Shifting, Accepting, Accepting with Grace, Rounding, Balancing, Encircling with a Shift, Encircling, Surrounding, Nurturing, Flowing, Reflecting and Suspending. For a demonstration and a description of Ai Chi, download Ms. Sova’s video, Ai Chi Quick and Easy from her DSL LTD store. Scroll down to the Techniques: Ai Chi – Video section, to the fifth row, and place your order. It’s free.

There is a focus on breath during Ai Chi. Take slow deep diaphragmatic breaths that expand the ribcage. Inhale with arm movements toward the surface of the water or away from the midline of the body, with the palms facing up. Exhale with arm movements toward the pool floor or toward the midline of the body, with the palms facing down. Do not worry about inhaling or exhaling at the wrong time. With practice, matching the breaths to the movements becomes natural. However it turns out is how it was meant to be for that session.

Ai Chi is used by aquatic therapists and rehab specialists for a variety of outcomes. For example, Ai Chi improves balance and reduces the risk of falling. Shifting, Accepting, Rounding, Balancing, Encircling with a Shift, and Nurturing are all movements that involve shifting the torso away from and back toward neutral, which is a skill necessary for recovering balance. Gathering, Freeing, Accepting, Encircling, Surrounding, and Nurturing are performed with a narrow base of support, which challenges balance. Lateral stepping becomes more difficult with age; Flowing involves steps to the side. Being able to reach over a certain distance is a predictor for fall risk; Gathering, Freeing, Accepting, Rounding, Balancing, Encircling, and Nurturing all involve reaching in various directions. Gait variability decreases with age because of decreased rotation in the spinal joints; Gathering, Freeing, Reflecting and Suspending all involve turning. In addition, having the eyes follow the hands during upper body movements increases cervical spine rotation. (Ruth Sova MS ATRIC, “Ai Chi and Fall Prevention” 3-11-2022)

  • Spiraling Ai Chi, in which the upper body movements are lead with the back of the hand, is used to enhance and create movement in areas where the neuromuscular movement has been compromised. Spiraling Ai Chi is designed to be multi-planar and multi positional. Diagonal patterns are used to increase coordination and promote joint stability. (Spiraling Ai Chi Course description)
  • Psychotherapists have used Ai Chi to treat patients with heightened anxiety or depression. People with heightened anxiety are “over the top” and people with depression are “under the bottom.” Ai Chi helps calm the nervous system so that the patient becomes more in touch with his/her body, reducing physical and emotional pain. Ai Chi movements are mindful, which is defined as present-centered awareness with the mindset of nonjudgment, openness and acceptance. Patients have been able to experience a sense of inner calm. (Patricia Henry-Schneider MS, LPC, “Ai Chi as a Model of Calm” 5-6-2022)
  • Ai Chi’s slow movements in water have been used to help wounded warriors who have lost a limb, learn to balance without being able to feel their prosthetic limb on the pool floor. (Ai Chi Day, 7-25-2021)
  • Women with multiple sclerosis who practiced Ai Chi showed notable improvements in muscle strength, functional mobility and fatigue. (Rena Goldman “Health Spotlight: Ai Chi” 5-2-2018))
  • Ai Chi was found to be effective for improving function, mobility and balance in patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s. (Goldman)
  • After 10 Ai Chi sessions, women with fibromyalgia experienced improvements in pain levels, mental health and quality of life. (Goldman)

I am a water fitness instructor, not an aquatic therapist. I use periodization with my classes, which means that I progress my classes by increasing intensity over a period of time until participants reach peak fitness. I love using Ai Chi as the cool down at the end of a high intensity interval class. And a long session of Ai Chi works great for the active recovery season that follows peak fitness to allow the muscles to rest, heal any microtears that may have occurred, and replenish their energy reserves. (For more about periodization see my book Water Fitness Progressions.) I created a modification of Ai Chi for my deep-water classes that Ms. Sova is going to include in a book on Ai Chi variations. Watch for it to show up in her DSL LTD store.

NOTE: The photo above is from a recording of Ai Chi Day 2020 which can be purchased in the DSL LTD store.

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

Troubleshooting: Problems in a Water Fitness Class

Water fitness instructors may spend a lot of time preparing for their class, coming up with a lesson plan, selecting music, showing up early, getting out the appropriate equipment, and being ready to greet their participants with a smile. It is rewarding when everything goes smoothly and you end the class with a feeling of accomplishment. Alas! Things don’t always go smoothly. Here are some common problems that might crop up and some possible solutions:

  • Some participants don’t seem to be able to follow your cues. Allow your participants to perform each exercise at least eight times before moving on to the next exercise, at least the first time around. Some people will not be able to keep up if you pace the exercises too quickly. If that doesn’t solve the problem, try using a variety of cueing techniques. Cues can be visual or audible. Visual cues include physical demonstrations and hand signals. Audible cues include spoken instructions, hand claps, and whistles. Consider using a deck microphone if possible. Cues can also be physical, such as pointing to the muscle you want your participant to focus on, but never assist anyone to perform an exercise by touching them without permission.
  • A participant does not follow your directions. It is not uncommon to have a participant who does not put much effort into the workout, or who always seems to be doing an exercise different from the one you are cueing. She may have some kind of physical issue that she has not told you about, such as arthritis or an injury. Give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is doing the best she can.
  • A participant asks you a medical question. Always know your limitations. Do not give medical advice. Refer your participant back to his own doctor.
  • Some participants spend more time talking with each other than exercising. This might be a good time to teach in the pool. Circulate among your participants and give them some individual encouragement, especially the talkers. This may be all that is needed to get them involved in the class. Sometimes, however, participants come to a class for the social aspects. If this is their objective, then you need to have patience with them. You might try encouraging them to socialize during the warm up and the cool down, but ask them to focus on the workout during the main set.
  • A participant shows up to class who is afraid of water. Suggest that the participant work close to the pool wall in the shallowest part of the pool. You can give her a pool noodle to hold onto for stability. Tell her that she does not need to travel until she feels comfortable doing so. Do not allow her to turn her back to the wall and hang by her arms with her elbows on the deck, because this has the potential of injuring the shoulder joint. After a few classes the participant may become more comfortable in the water.
  • Some participants are afraid to lift their feet off the floor during suspended moves. In that case, let them perform the exercises standing upright or offer them options in the neutral position, with their hips and knees flexed. When they are comfortable in the neutral position, encourage them to lower their shoulders below the surface of the water, which allows them to experience their center of buoyancy in the lungs, as opposed to their center of gravity in the hips. Teach them to scull, which helps provide lift during suspended moves. Later you can ask them to pick their feet off the floor for only a brief moment, perhaps with a jacks tuck or a tuck ski. Finally, cue them to hold the tuck for a longer period of time. They have become suspended!
  • Your participants fill up the space in the pool and their is not enough room for traveling. This problem has more solutions than you might imagine:
    1. Quarter turns: Perform an exercise 4 times and turn to the left side of the pool, perform the exercise 4 times and turn to the back of the pool, perform the exercise 4 times and turn to the right side of the pool, then perform the exercise 4 times and turn back to the front.
    2. Half turns and full turns. Perform an exercise 4-8 times then turn toward the back of the pool, perform it 4-8 times again and turn back to the front. Full turns require a quick spin that can be both challenging and fun.
    3. Perform an exercise 4 times while traveling backward and 4 times while traveling forward, continuing to travel back and forth. The quick change of direction challenges core strength and balance.
    4. Divide the participants into two groups facing each other on opposite sides of the pool. Have them travel forward to the opposite side of the pool to change places, and backward to return to their original location.
    5. Have the participants stand in a big circle. They can travel a few steps toward the center of the circle and a few steps back, or a few steps sideways to the right or to the left. They can also travel around the circle clockwise or counterclockwise, but avoid traveling this way too far because a current quickly forms that can sweep some participants off their feet.
    6. Avoid creating a current by dividing the participants into two concentric circles. The inner circle might travel clockwise, and the outer circle counterclockwise. This creates a lot of turbulence that increases the intensity.
    7. If you have something similar to four lap lanes, divide the class into two groups. One group travels down the first lap lane and up the second lap lane, and the other group travels down the third lap lane and up the fourth lap lane. The effect will be travel in two oval patterns side by side.
    8. Have participants travel in a scatter pattern, over all parts of the pool area.

If you have other solutions to problems that may have cropped up for you, send me a comment through my website at https://waterfitnesslessons.com/contact.html

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

Fall Prevention

Risk Falling Fall prevention Slip and fall Wet floor sign, Lorm Ipsum ...

September is Fall Prevention Awareness month. It is estimated that one in four Americans over the age of 65 will fall every year. Falls not only can be life threatening, but they are associated with poor health outcomes and a sense of fear that can hinder independence, activity and strength in older adults. Therefore preventing falls in the first place is important. The Mayo Clinic offers the following tips for preventing falls:

  • Review your medications with your doctor. Some drug interactions may increase your risk of falling.
  • Exercise to improve strength, balance, coordination and flexibility.
  • Wear sensible shoes. Shoes like high heels and floppy slippers can contribute to a fall.
  • Remove tripping hazards from walkways in your home.
  • Secure loose rugs with double-sided tape or remove loose rugs entirely..
  • Clean up spills immediately.
  • Make sure there is adequate light in your living spaces so you can see where you are going.
  • Turn on the lights before going downstairs.

In addition to these tips for the home, aquatic fitness instructors can help with fall prevention by including some of the following exercises in their classes:

  • Gait training. People who are afraid of falling, perhaps because of a previous fall, tend to shorten their stride and look down at the floor. The hydrostatic pressure of the water supports the body and reduces the fear of falling, so a water exercise class is the perfect place for gait training. Walking is a good warm up at the beginning of class, or cool down at the end of class. Walk forward, backward and sideways. Include starts and stops. Try slow motion walking, or walk without moving the head or torso. Try walking with hands on hips to remove stabilizing arm movements. Change the tempo by walking slow for a few steps, then fast for a few steps, and slow again. Walk with quick changes of direction.
  • Strength training. Include exercises to strengthen the muscles of the back to improve posture. Examples include shoulder blade squeeze; standing rows with webbed gloves, drag bells, paddles or kickboards; bowstring pull with drag bells or resistance tubing; lat pull-down with webbed gloves, drag bells, paddles, resistance tubing or dumbbells; and chin tucks. Leg exercises against the resistance of the water will strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and adductors.
  • Flexibility. Movements through their full range of motion promote flexibility. A form of exercise that uses full range of motion is Ai Chi created by Jun Kono of Japan and brought to the United States by Ruth Sova. Follow the link for a YouTube video of June Kono performing Ai Chi. It is also important to stretch at the end of class, while the muscles are still warm. Stretches can be static or dynamic. Examples of static stretches are clasping hands behind the back to stretch the chest, and lifting the heel in back with a pelvic tilt to stretch the quadriceps and hip flexors. Examples of dynamic stretches are swinging one leg forward and back through a full range of motion, and lifting one leg to the side, crossing the midline in front of the body, lifting it to the side again, and crossing the midline behind the body.
  • Ankle flexibility. Weak ankles or reduced range of motion in the ankles contribute to reduced stability. Some exercises to improve ankle flexibility are walking on toes or on heels – both forward and backward, rolling from heels to toes and back to heels, ankle circles, sitting on a noodle and writing your name with your foot, and squats keeping the heels on the floor. Squat with the feet in various positions, such as a narrow stance, a wide stance, toes pointing in, toes pointing out, or a tandem stance with one foot directly in front of the other.
  • Balance challenges. Asymmetrical movements require more core stabilization. Try walking, jogging, cross-country ski or jumping jacks with one hand on the hips or behind the back, or with each arm performing a different movement. Another challenge is to jog, ski or do jumping jacks with just one leg, keeping the other foot grounded. Stand and reach one arm as far forward as possible until you start to lose your balance. Reach your arm to the side and to the back until you start to lose your balance as well. Walk with one foot directly in front of the other or do a crossover step. Stand on one foot with and perform asymmetrical arm movements, or turn your head from side to side, or keep your head still and look from side to side, or close your eyes.
  • Unpredictable command. Improve your participants’ reaction time with the unpredictable command technique. Direct the class to perform unexpected movements. For example, walk diagonal, forward, backward, or sideways. Walk faster, knees higher, on toes or heels, with toes curled up or down or one of each. Look over your shoulder, tuck your chin, lower your shoulder blades, or touch your shoulder. Lift one arm to the side, front or back, lift both arms and let your fingers walk on the water. For more on the unpredictable command technique, see a previous blog post “Improve Reaction Time.”

Deep water exercise requires a lot of core stabilization, often leading to improved posture. My book, Water Fitness Progressions, includes 3 lesson plans, one for functional core strength, one for balance training, and one a Pilates fusion class for deep water. There are also variations of the same 3 lesson plans for shallow water. Now is a good time to start working on fall prevention.

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

Train Your Brain

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Of all the things I might lose as I age, the scariest one is losing my brain health. Worldwide, more than 54 million people had Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in 2020, according to the American Heart Association, and that number is expected to grow. The Aquatic Exercise Association listed 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s in their 2nd Quarter 2022 issue of Leader Tools:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  2. Challenges in planning or problem solving.
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
  4. Confusion with time or place.
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing.
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
  8. Decreased or poor judgement.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
  10. Changes in mood or personality.

If there is anything that can be done to prevent or delay the onset of dementia, I definitely want to do it! Scientists long believed that the brain was not capable of producing new neurons, but modern research has revealed that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that allows learning, is capable of generating new cells throughout adult life. The ability of the brain to change and grow is called neuroplasticity. John J. Ratey, MD and Eric Hagerman published a book in 2008 called SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. They discussed the research that had been done which shows that aerobic exercise helps the brain as much as it helps the heart. Aerobic exercise stimulates the release of the substance known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which sets in motion the growth of new synaptic connections and bolsters the strength of signals transmitted from neuron to neuron. A study by Dr. Aron Buchman done at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago was published in the Journal of Neurology. He followed 535 individuals, with an average age of 81, for an average of six years, testing their cognitive functions (thought processes and memory) each year. After their deaths, the researchers took note of the BDNF levels in the brain. The subjects who had exercised had the highest levels of BDNF, and they experienced a 50 percent slower loss of cognitive functions compared with those who had the lowest BDNF levels.

Studies have shown that immersion in water relaxes the blood vessels, which facilitates an increase in the cardiac output of blood throughout the body, including the muscles working during exercise, and the brain. In a 2015 booklet entitled Water Immersion Works, Dr. Bruce Becker, the director of the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute in Spokane, Washington, noted that anecdotal evidence suggests that time spent in the swimming pool has a beneficial effect on people with dementia. Individuals in a study showed improved speech and language function, improved balance and agility, and improved cognitive and memory function, an improvement that persisted after their sessions in the pool.

What about those computer games and puzzles that claim “doctors beg their patients to play these games” in order to keep their brains young? Research has found that these computer games and activities such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles are not as beneficial as originally thought. However, there is neuroplasticity training that can be combined with physical movement to strengthen, improve and even change some brain regions. Putting those neuroplasticity drills into a water fitness class is like using all the tools in your toolbox for reducing the risk of dementia. So how does this work?

Lawrence Biscontini, MA, has been involved in brain training since 1972. As an Advisory Board Member for the International Council on Active Aging, and as an active ager himself, Biscontini dedicates a great deal of time to making practical the most recent research on keeping our brains as young and sharp as possible. Check his website for information on his workshops and to read some of his articles. Below are some examples of neuroplasticity drills to perform out loud (to get more senses involved) while doing exercises in the pool such as jogging, jumping jacks, cross-country ski or any other combination of exercises.

  • Spell your first name forwards and backwards
  • Say the names of the months backwards starting with December and skipping every other month (December, October, August…)
  • Count down from 100 by 3s
  • Teach participants a word in any other language; repeat it and spell it 7 times
  • Say out loud (the whole class together) your first memory, first birthday party, how you met your first friend or some other long term memory
  • Recite the digits of your phone number forward and backward
  • Add the digits of your phone number together, two at a time
  • Give the class math problems to solve (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division)
  • Give each of 5 exercises a number, and call out the number instead of the name of the exercise
  • Spell the name of your state, adding the next letter after each letter, e.g. T (U) E (F) X (Y) A (B) S (T) for Texas
  • When performing an exercise, such as a lunge, with the right leg name a fruit, and with the left leg name a vegetable
  • Name as many green vegetables, cold drinks, names beginning with the letter R, birds, car makes or any other list you can think of

You can have a lot of fun coming up with neuroplasticity drills for your class and your class will have a lot of fun trying to imagine what you will come up with next. You will also be helping them to keep their brain health and reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s. That’s a win for everyone!

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander