The Benefits of Water Exercise

Here we are at the beginning of 2021 and not sorry to see the end of 2020. Many of us had to give up our fitness routines last year because COVID-19 closed the gyms and we were sheltering in place. And many of us lost some level of fitness and gained weight as a result. Now we have vaccines, and although we have to continue to wear masks and social distance for awhile longer, we can look forward to the day when it will be safe to get back to working out as we did before COVID. Even if your fitness routine did not previously include water exercise, there are many good reasons to consider working out in the pool. The properties of water provide these benefits.

Buoyancy. Buoyancy is the upward vertical force of water. This force allows you to float and decreases the compression of your joints. As a result, you are able to exercise with greater range of motion, which improves flexibility. People with joint issues experience decreased pain, which is why water exercise is so popular with people who have arthritis. Buoyancy reduces the body’s weight by 90% in neck deep water, by 65-75% in chest deep water, and by 50% in waist deep water. People who cannot exercise on land, where they must bear their full weight, are able to exercise comfortably and vigorously in the water. Water exercise is ideal for the obese who tend to drop out of other forms of exercise because it is too uncomfortable. Buoyancy is responsible for the feeling of fun many people experience in the water, even when they are working hard. It is the reason why so many people who try water exercise end up staying with the program.

Drag Resistance. It is often said that the resistance of water is 12-14X greater than the resistance of air on land. In fact, the resistance depends on how much force you are using when you move your limbs through the water, since the harder you push, the harder the water pushes back. Drag resistance slows movement down. This allows you to perform rebounding moves and other sports-based activities without risk of injury, while at the same time improving skills. Drag is experienced with every movement in every direction, which means you have a constant muscle load provided by water. People who exercise in water see improved muscular strength and endurance. Both of the muscles in opposing pairs are worked equally, which promotes muscle balance. It used to be thought that water exercise was not a good option for maintaining or improving bone density. But when researchers looked at water exercise as resistance exercise instead of weight bearing exercise, they designed experiments in which participants performed strength training exercises with maximal effort and without shortening the range of motion. The results were increased bone formation in post-menopausal women. Similar results were obtained in a study that looked at aquatic high intensity interval training. The key for both is maximal effort and full range of motion.

Hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure is the pressure exerted by the molecules of water on an immersed body. This pressure is exerted equally on all surfaces of the body, and it increases with depth. Hydrostatic pressure decreases swelling, especially in the lower extremities which are immersed more deeply. This is one reason why aquatic physical therapy is often prescribed for certain injuries and conditions. Hydrostatic pressure is exerted on the chest cavity, which helps condition the muscles of respiration to inhale deeply and forcefully.

Water exercise improves cardiovascular fitness. Immersion relaxes the blood vessels so that they can carry more blood while presenting less resistance to the heart, which is pumping that blood. This decreases blood pressure. Decreased blood pressure lingers for awhile after you get out of the pool. With regular aquatic exercise, the vessels themselves become more pliant and supple. Since stiffening of the blood vessels is a primary factor that causes blood pressure to increase with age, keeping them pliant reduces the risk for hypertension. The hydrostatic pressure of the water pushes blood out to the extremities, and in combination with more supple blood vessels, stroke volume and cardiac output increases. This means that the heart becomes more efficient, pumping more blood with each stroke. Blood flow to the muscles during water exercise can increase an amazing 250%. With this kind of blood flow, heart rate is lowered. Target heart rates while exercising in shallow water average about 7 beats per minute lower than the same intensity exercise on land. The exact number of beats depends on many factors, including the fitness level of the individual. An added benefit of increased cardiac output is that a greater blood volume is pushed through the kidneys, which in turn improves kidney function and increases urine output.

The working muscles and kidneys are not the only beneficiaries of improved cardiac output. Blood flow to the brain increases progressively with immersion from zero depth to shoulder depth. The blood flow persists throughout the exercise period, delivering oxygen and nutrients which the brain uses to repair and regenerate brain and nerve cells. It is reasonable to assume that this would help slow the deterioration of age-related brain performance.

Conclusion. Water’s properties of buoyancy, drag resistance and hydrostatic pressure have many benefits. Water exercise improves flexibility, decreases pain, allows you to exercise comfortably, slows movement down reducing the risk of injury, improves muscular strength and endurance, promotes muscle balance, increases bone formation in post-menopausal women, reduces swelling, conditions the muscles of respiration, improves cardiovascular fitness, decreases blood pressure, improves cardiac output, improves kidney function, and slows the deterioration of age-related brain function. As if that weren’t enough, most people perceive water exercise as fun. When it is time for you to resume a pre-COVIC exercise routine, I hope to see you in the pool.

Resources: Information for this article comes from Dr. Bruce Becker, Director of the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute and other researchers and the Aquatic Exercise Association’s Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual (2018) For more information on water exercise, see my book Water Fitness Progressions available from Amazon.

Author/Instructor Photo

Chris Alexander

Keep Your Muscle Mass

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Your muscles grow until around age 30 and after that they begin to decline. If nothing is done to prevent this loss of muscle mass, the end result is loss of grip strength, difficulty picking up heavier objects, trouble rising out of a chair, and an inability to get up off the floor. Who wants that?? The good news is that loss of muscle mass in not an inevitable part of aging. Like the saying goes, use it or lose it! Using it means strength training.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that every adult perform activities that maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance for a minimum of two days a week. Adults over 65 should strength train two to three times a week. In other words, the older you get the more important strength training becomes.

You can strength train at home using bands. You can perform exercises that use your own body weight such as push ups, planks and wall sits. You can go to a gym and use free weights or weight machines. Most gyms have someone on staff who can show you how to use the weight machines. Or you can hire a personal trainer who can design a personalized strength training program. Ideally you will mix things up and do a variety of strength training routines. Lift the weight quickly but take 3-5 seconds to lower it. Choose 8 to 10 exercises targeting the major upper body, mid body and lower body muscle groups. Healthy adults should do 8-12 repetitions of each exercise with a weight heavy enough to be challenging but not so heavy that you have to strain to lift it. Older adults should do 10-15 repetitions using lighter weights.

You can also do your strength training in the pool. This requires some effort on your part. It is possible to do the exercises in your water fitness class by gently moving through the water, slicing your hand to minimize the resistance, possibly chatting with other exercisers at the same time. There may be benefits to this, but improving strength is not one of them. Instead of slicing, move your fist through the water, or even better, present an open hand with the fingers slightly cupped. Push hard against the water, with as much speed and power as you can. The harder you push, the harder the water pushes back. You want to create turbulence, making white water and waves. This kind of effort requires concentration but it is necessary to overload the muscles so that you can see gains in strength.

Equipment can be added to increase the resistance in water. Choose equipment that you can handle while maintaining good alignment. Then push and pull the equipment through the water with speed and power. Drag equipment, which does not float, can be pushed and pulled in any direction. Buoyant equipment, which floats, needs to be pushed toward the pool floor in order to be effective. The turbulence and waves you create with the equipment lets you know that you are overloading your muscles and improving your muscular strength and endurance.

There are other benefits to strength training. Improving your muscular strength and endurance can help prevent osteoporosis, decrease the risk of heart disease, reduce the risk of falling, and enhance the quality of life. It can postpone the day when you become frail to some time in the distant future. And that’s a very good thing! For more information and lesson plans that have strength training as their objective, see my book Water Fitness Progressions.

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander

Benefits of HIIT

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HIIT, or high intensity interval training, is popular in all kinds of fitness formats. HIIT was named the #1 Fitness Trend for 2018 according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s world wide survey. During HIIT the goal is to work so hard that it becomes difficult to breathe in enough oxygen to supply the demands of the muscles. You are working at 80-90% of your maximum effort. Once you get to 90% effort, your body’s demand for oxygen exceeds the oxygen supply available. This is called crossing the anaerobic threshold. Your body must now rely on energy sources that are stored in the muscles. Since there is only a limited amount of energy stored in the muscles, this level of intensity can only be sustained for a short time, ranging from a few seconds to 2 minutes, depending on your fitness level. The recovery period in anaerobic exercise is important. If the recovery period is shorter than the high-intensity period, then the body is unable to achieve full anaerobic recovery. Therefore, in most cases the recovery is longer than the work.

HIIT improves both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. It has also been shown to improve blood pressure, cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol profiles, and abdominal fat and body weight, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. HIIT burns more calories than continuous cardiorespiratory training, especially after the workout. This occurs because the heart and lungs work hard to supply oxygen to the working muscles and after the exercise ends, the body has excess oxygen to consume. About two hours are needed to use up the excess oxygen. This post exercise period adds around 15% more calories to the overall workout energy expenditure.

To increase intensity for interval training in water exercise you can increase the range of motion, increase the speed without decreasing the range of motion, go into the suspended position, and add acceleration by jumping or performing the exercise with power. (See my previous blog post: Make Your Heart Stronger with Intervals.) However to go into HIIT you will need to use two of the intensity variables at once, such as full range of motion with power, or speed with jumping. Try adding power while traveling. Another strategy is to work in two planes at the same time. You can do this by alternating one move in the frontal plane, such as a frog jump, with another move in the sagittal plan, such as tuck ski. A second way to work in two planes is to combine a leg move in one plane with an arm move in a different plane. Examples include kick side to side (frontal plane) with arms sweeping side to side (transverse plane); cross-country ski (sagittal plane) with rotation, hands together (transverse plane); and high kick (sagittal plane) clap over the leg (transverse plane) and under the leg (frontal plane). When you are working at 80% of your maximum effort you are able to grunt in response to questions but can only keep up the pace for a short time. At 90% of your maximum effort you will feel like you can’t do this much longer.

Since periods of high intensity are alternated with periods of recovery, HIIT provides the exerciser the opportunity to experience the extra benefits of intense exercise without creating an experience that is negative or unpleasant. However, not everyone in a class is willing or able to do HIIT. Some may have an injury that prevents them from performing certain moves. Some may have a condition that makes working at that level contraindicated. Some just may not be able to push it hard that day. For safety’s sake, participants should always modify the intensity to a level that is challenging for them rather than trying to keep up with other participants.

My book Water Fitness Progressions has information about HIIT along with sample lesson plans that include high intensity intervals with a variety of ways to configure the intervals. To order the book from the publisher, click on the title. The book can also be ordered from  

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander

Make Your Heart Stronger with Intervals

The way to make your heart stronger is to make it beat faster. Since there is a direct correlation between how fast your heart is beating and how fast you are breathing, making your heart stronger means exercising at a pace that makes you breathe faster than normal. Interval training is a popular way to meet this objective.

Interval training is alternating bouts of fast paced exercise with slower paced exercise. The fast pace is called work and the slower pace is called recovery. One period of work plus one period of recovery is called a set. A group of sets is called a cycle. The chart above shows a cycle of five sets of intervals. If you are jogging, your work might be running and your recovery could be walking. In a water exercise class, your work might be performing an exercise faster, but there are other ways to increase intensity.

The basic aquatic exercises of jog, kick, cross-country ski and jumping jacks can all be performed at a somewhat easy level. Your breath will be faster than standing still, but you can still do the exercises while talking or even singing. To increase the intensity to a moderate level, increase the range of motion, that is, make the moves larger. Your breath will be a little faster and although you will still be able to talk, it will be harder to sing. To increase the intensity to a somewhat hard level, increase the speed of the exercise. Try not to lose range of motion as you go faster. For many people, taking the exercise to a suspended position is also somewhat hard. With faster moves or suspended moves you may be able to talk, but you will be breathing hard enough that you won’t really want to talk. To work at a hard level, add acceleration. This could be by jumping but you can also perform the exercise with power. The harder you push against the water the harder the water pushes back. Power moves are slower but the effort is greater. At this level, you might be able to grunt in response to a question and you will feel like you can only keep that pace for a short time.

Click on this link to watch a video of the basic exercise of cross-country ski in shallow water along with the variations of increasing range of motion, increasing speed, going suspended, adding power, and adding rotation (a variation of a power move). Each variation is performed for 4 counts.

Click on this link to watch a video of the basic exercise of cross-country ski in deep water along with the variations of increasing range of motion, increasing speed, adding elevation (accelerating the legs toward center to lift the shoulders out of the water), adding power and adding rotation. Each variation is performed for 4 counts.

The work period and the recovery period of an interval can last for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Usually the recovery period is longer than the work period so that you can recover fully before starting the next work period, but you can have a reduced recovery period for an added challenge. Some ways to time the intervals are:

  • Interval 30: 30 seconds of work to 90, 60 or 30 seconds of recovery
  • Interval 40: 40 seconds of work to 80, 60 or 40 seconds of recovery
  • Interval 60: 60 seconds of work to 120, 90 or 60 seconds of recovery
  • Reduced Recovery Time: 1, 2 or 3 minutes of work to 30, 60 or 90 seconds of recovery
  • Rolling Intervals: work for 1 minute, increase intensity for 1 minute, and increase intensity again for another minute
  • Surges: work for 45 seconds and increase intensity for 15 seconds to 60 seconds of recovery
  • Tabata – 20 seconds of work to 10 seconds of recovery 8 times
Chris Book Cover

These ways to time intervals, plus additional timing options, are explained in my book, Water Fitness Progressions. The book also includes sample lesson plans that use these timing options with variations for moderate, somewhat hard or hard intensities. To order the book from the publisher, click on the title. The book can also be ordered from  

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander

Make Your Heart Stronger

Your heart is a muscle. If you don’t use your muscles, they become weaker. This is true of your heart as well as your biceps! Inactivity is a failure to use your heart muscle. If you want to make your heart muscle stronger, you need to make it beat faster than normal.

One of the components of physical fitness is cardiorespiratory endurance. This is the ability of your heart to beat faster than normal in order to deliver oxygen to your working muscles for a sustained period of time. When you do aerobic exercise your muscles need oxygen to burn calories for energy. You breathe faster to take in the oxygen that you are using. There is a direct correlation between how fast you are breathing and how fast your heart is beating.

So how much time should you spend making year heart beat faster? The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you get a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week to keep your heart strong. You can spread those 150 minutes out in various ways. You can take a 50-minute water fitness class three days a week. You can take a brisk 30-minute walk five days a week. You can even go for 10-minute bouts of exercise: climb the stairs at your office for 10-minutes instead of taking the elevator, ride a stationary bike for 10 minutes during your lunch break, and take the dog for a 10-minute walk after work. All that adds up to 30 minutes in a day.

How do you know if you are making your heart beat fast enough during your exercise? Since there is a direct correlation between how fast your are breathing and how fast your heart is beating, you pay attention to your breath. If you are able to carry on a conversation and even sing along with the playlist your fitness instructor is using, then your workout is light. Your heart is not really beating fast enough to get stronger. If you are able to talk but you are breathing too hard to be able to sing, then your body is telling you that you are working at a moderate level, that is, harder than your normal activity. This means your heart rate is into what is called the “target zone,” the level where fitness improvements occur. If you are breathing even harder so that you could talk if you had to but you’d really rather not, then you are working at a moderately hard level, and you are still in the target zone.

The target zone is different for everyone. A beginner may find herself breathing hard at a certain walking pace while an experienced exerciser will have to walk much faster to get her heart rate up to the same speed. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced exerciser, work hard enough so that you get the benefits of exercising your heart muscle. You may not get those benefits if you take a water fitness class and spend the time talking with your friends. Work hard enough that your breathing impacts your ability to carry on a conversation.

One hundred and fifty minutes of aerobic exercise a week may seem like a lot, but everyone wants a strong heart muscle! Cardiorespiratory endurance improves your longevity and quality of life, allowing you to participate in recreational activities, play with grandchildren and do all the walking you have planned for your vacation.

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander