Exercise Motivation

Strength Training
Aerobic Exercise

I get it. It’s hard to make time for exercise. You know you should exercise. Maybe your doctor told you to exercise. But you’ve got work projects, and household responsibilities, and maybe kids with all of their activities. And then there’s social media, and Netflix, and you are so tired by the end of the day. It’s easy to postpone exercise until after you’ve made that important business presentation, or after you’ve finished your home repair project, or after your daughter’s soccer season ends.

On the other hand, no one likes to think about becoming frail as they age. According to the Clarity Final Report (2007), the things people fear the most about aging are (1) losing their independence because of poor health, poor memory or an inability to get around, (2) having to move into a nursing home, (3) losing their family and friends, and (4) having to give up driving. Exercise is the prescription for postponing most of these life-altering events indefinitely into the future. This is one reason why the American College of Sports Medicine recommends strength training 2-3 times a week and at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise every week. Research has shown that following these guidelines is associated with lower mortality risk.

Strength Training. According to an article in the New York Times, “People Who Do Strength Training Live Longer – and Better” (August 24, 2022) people who take part in strength training sessions 1-2 times a week have a 40% lower mortality risk than those who don’t exercise at all. Muscle strength is required to get out of your chair, to open a jar of pickles, to carry your groceries into the house, to do yardwork and more. We progressively lose muscle mass as we age, but regular strength training prevents the loss of muscle mass and improves both muscular strength and endurance. Building muscle increases the amount of fat-free mass in your body and increases your resting metabolism. Stronger leg muscles protect the joints and make them more stable, which helps reduce the pain of osteoarthritis. Stronger leg muscles also reduce the risk of falls in older adults. Stronger muscles in the back and abdomen allow you to stand up straight and avoid lower back pain as you age. Strength training increases bone mineral density which lowers the risk of osteoporosis, and for those who already have low bone density it helps slow the progression of the disease. Strength training increases glucose metabolism which lowers the risk of diabetes, and for those who are already diabetic, it helps manage glucose levels. Strength training lowers the incidence of many chronic diseases, and improves psychological well-being.

Aerobic Exercise. Aerobic exercise is strength training for your heart. The heart is the most important muscle in the body. It beats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Regular aerobic exercise increases the ability of the lungs to hold air and strengthens the heart muscle so that it pumps a greater volume of blood with each stroke. Aerobic exercise lowers the resting heart rate. The maximum amount of oxygen your heart can deliver to the working muscles declines as you age, mainly due to physical inactivity and an increase in body fat. Once it declines to a certain level, a person loses functional independence. Poor aerobic fitness is a more accurate predictor of death than risk factors such as hypertension, smoking and diabetes. Aerobic exercise retards this decline. Aerobic exercise also improves insulin sensitivity, helps prevent diabetes, can reduce coronary artery disease risk by 50%, lowers the incidence of colon cancer and breast cancer, can improve balance and prevent falls, preserves bone mineral density, can help the exerciser lose and maintain loss of body fat, lowers blood pressure (if elevated), and can improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Recent research suggests that aerobic exercise is also good for your gut bacteria.

The longer you go without regular exercise, the more likely you are to have dementia. You are also more likely to get diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, all of which may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. There is no time like the present to get started. You do not have to lift heavy weights. In fact more repetitions with lighter weights has been shown to be more effective with older adults. You do not have to start running marathons for your aerobic exercise. Find something you enjoy: a brisk walk in your neighborhood, ride a bicycle, play pickleball, go dancing, join a sports league, swim laps, or take a water fitness class. Check out the Plano Parks & Recreation website or the Parks & Rec website in your city for more options.

See you in the pool!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

Strength Training Equipment for the Pool

When people think of water fitness, they most often think of a cardio workout. While that is emphatically true, it is also possible to strength train in the pool. You don’t even need equipment. You can use the water’s resistance and the same principles for increasing intensity that you use for aerobic exercise. Once you have mastered that, adding equipment increases the resistance. Since most of the popular equipment made for use in the pool is hand-held, the targeted muscles are in the upper body:

  • Chest (Pectoralis major) – Chest fly/clap hands
  • Upper back (Trapezius) – Row
  • Side back (Latissimus dorsi) – Lat pull-down
  • Shoulders (Front and rear deltoids) – Arm swing
  • Shoulders and mid back (Rear deltoids and rhomboids) – Rear delt fly
  • Shoulders (Middle deltoids) – Arm lift to the sides
  • Rotator cuff – Shoulder medial rotation/rotator cuff sweep
  • Biceps – Arm curl
  • Triceps – Elbow extension

Increase the Range of Motion. Start by selecting your targeted muscle group, and moving your arms through their full, pain-free, range of motion. Notice how the water moves as your arms move.

Add Speed. Next increase your speed while continuing to move through your full range of motion. Your movement becomes harder. It’s easy to start slowing down, so pay attention to what you are doing.

Add Acceleration. Finally push harder against the water’s resistance. The harder you push against the water, the harder the water pushes back. You may notice that even though you are pushing harder, your movements are slowing down. When you get used to using acceleration, it is time to add equipment.

Buoyant Equipment. Nearly every pool facility has foam dumbbells in their equipment closet. Foam dumbbells were the first type of equipment specifically created for use in the pool. Buoyant equipment floats, therefore, the resistance comes from pushing the dumbbells down toward the pool floor. They are great for targeting the latissimus dorsi (as in the photo above) and the triceps. From a lunge position, if you lean forward 45 degrees with your spine in alignment, you can target the pectorals by pushing a chest fly toward the pool floor. Movements parallel to the floor, such as a row, an arm swing, a rear delt fly, and a rotator cuff sweep, create drag resistance, but the shoulder stabilizers must contract to hold the equipment under water. It is best to limit the number of reps for these exercises or avoid them if you cannot maintain good shoulder alignment. Movements toward the surface of the water, such as an arm lift to the sides or an arm curl, are assisted by buoyancy.

Drag Equipment. A variety of drag equipment is available. These increase the resistance of the water by increasing the surface area. Paddles have holes that allow water to flow through. Drag bells have multiple surface areas that create turbulence.

Drag equipment is not buoyant, and the resistance is in all directions – toward the pool floor, parallel to the pool floor, toward the surface of the water, and at any other angle. Drag equipment can be used to target any of the upper body muscle groups. Examples include a chest fly with paddles, a row with a kickboard, an arm swing with drag bells, a rotator cuff sweep with webbed gloves, and an arm curl with an Aqua Ohm, as in the photos above.

Rubberized Equipment. Resistance tubing and bands that are chlorine resistant have come on the market in the past several years. They work the same as rubberized equipment on land. There has to be an anchor point and the resistance is in pulling away from the anchor point. You can use a pool ladder as an anchor point, but that is impractical in a group exercise setting. The anchor point is usually one of your hands, or you can place the band behind your back, or from a seated position put it under your thighs, and then pull with both arms. Resistance tubing is too long to be able to hold a handle in each hand for most people. Try using one handle as the anchor point, then putting the other hand on the appropriate length of tubing. You can slip your wrist through the loose handle to keep it from flopping around in the water, as in the photo to the left of a rear delt fly.

Once you are comfortable with the equipment you can continue to increase the intensity by increasing the range of motion, adding speed, or adding acceleration, that is, by pushing or pulling harder. You can move up to a larger size foam dumbbell or drag bell, or a thicker resistance tube. You can hold a shorter length of rubberized equipment. You can close the holes on the paddles. You can use different pieces of equipment at different times to prevent your muscles from getting used to one type. Click on the name of each piece of equipment for a link to 10-second video of an exercise using that equipment. For strength training lesson plans both without and with equipment, see Water Fitness Progressions.

Let the pool be your all-purpose gym for both aerobic exercise and strength training. See you there!

Author/Instructor Photo
Chris Alexander

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