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 https://www.playcore.com/programs/water-immersion-works and the Aquatic Exercise Association’s Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual (2018) https://aeawave.org/Shop/Books For more information on water exercise, see my book Water Fitness Progressions available from Amazon.

Author/Instructor Photo

Chris Alexander

Squats

An important exercise to add to your fitness routine is the squat. A squat is a functional movement because you use it whenever you sit in a chair, get into the car, use the toilet, or pick up a basket of laundry. Practicing the squat will enable you to continue to perform these activities of daily living much longer. Squatting uses your hips, knees, ankles, glutes, quads and core. Strengthening these muscles in your lower body will also make you more stable and help prevent falls.

Sit down and stand up

So how to get started? Begin by sitting in a chair and standing up. If this is difficult, then hold on to a table or counter while performing the move. Progress to sitting down and standing up without holding on. When you are comfortable with this, see how many times you can sit down and stand up in 30 seconds. The goal is 12 repetitions.

Incorrect Squat
Correct Squat

The next progression is to squat without a chair. How deeply you squat is not important, but make sure your knees are not projecting forward over your toes, as in the first picture. Instead, bend forward from your hips while keeping your knees aligned over the toes, and your weight on your heels, as in the second picture. You will feel it mostly in your quads and glutes. There are several ways to vary the squat. Try squatting with the feet close together or wide apart. You can also try the squat with one foot in front of the other. A lunge is essentially a one-legged squat, with the weight on the front leg and the back leg assisting with balance. Another progression is to hold weights while squatting. If you have a bar you can hold onto, you can take your squats deeper. To see a video with additional information about squats, check out the Being Balanced website at https://www.beingbalancedmethod.com/fitness-videos

Feet Close Together
Feet Wide Apart
One Foot in Front
Lunge

Squat on Step
Squat One Foot on Step
Lunge on Step

Take Your Squats to the Pool. When you squat on land, gravity assists as you lower your body, and the quads and glutes do the work as you rise. The dynamic is different in the water. There buoyancy assists you to rise, and the hamstrings do the work to lower your body toward the floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. You can increase the work for the hamstrings by holding buoyant equipment, such as foam dumbbells, down by your sides as you squat. One way to work the glutes and quads in the pool is to do squats and lunges on an aquatic step. In this way, more of your body is out of the water and therefore gravity comes more into play. Another way to work the glutes and quads is to perform rebounding moves in which you push off from the floor with both feet. Examples are cross-country ski, jumping jacks and various kinds of jumps, as in the pictures below.

Tuck Jump
Split Jump
Skateboard Jump

Squats and jumps are not options in deep water, but there are other exercises that can be used to work the glutes and quads. One option is to focus on pressing the heels toward the pool floor during a knee-high jog. You can perform a seated leg press, an action similar to using a leg press machine, or rock climb, leaning forward and moving the arms and legs as if climbing a rock wall. Glutes can be worked individually with a cross-country ski or skate kick; and quads can be worked individually with a seated kick. All the underwater photos are from my book Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography.

Seated Leg Press
Rock Climb
Cross-Country Ski

Recommendation: To be able to continue to do important activities of daily living such as sitting in a chair and standing up, driving your car and using the toilet, be sure to include squats in your fitness routine or work your glutes and quads in the pool or do both!

Author/Instructor Photo

Chris Alexander

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.

COVID-19 and Swimming Pools

Expert: Swimming pool facilities water unlikely to spread ...

Many states have loosened social distancing restrictions in order to get the economy going again. Now, however, we are seeing a rise in Corona virus cases. We would all like to know what to expect with this pandemic, but there is no way to know for sure how it will play out. My doctor’s practice, USMD Health System, has suggested three possible scenarios:

Scenario One — Begins with an initial wave in Spring 2020 followed by a series of smaller waves of infection that last up to two years.
Scenario Two — Begins in Spring 2020 and is followed by a second, larger wave this fall or winter and a smaller one in 2021. If this happens, communities will likely return to quarantines.
Scenario Three — Begins in Spring 2020 and is followed by what the Center for Infectious Disease Research And Policy (CIDRAP) describes as a “slow burn.” That means there’s no clear pattern. This scenario would likely not cause communities to return to quarantines, but infections and deaths would continue.

No matter the scenario, CIDRAP says we should prepare for another 18-24 months of COVID-19. That means we should continue to practice social distancing, wear face masks in public, and wash our hands often.

Our swimming pools have reopened. Lap swimming, swim lessons and water fitness classes are resuming. What should we know about the safety of returning to the pool and what kind of cautious response should we make? Sara Kooperman (the owner of SCW Mania Fitness conventions) and John Spannuth (the president of the US Water Fitness Association) have both asserted that chlorine used to disinfect pool water kills COVID-19. Craig Lord, the Swimming World Editor-in-Chief, agrees that disinfectants, including chlorine, act on viruses and it is reasonable to expect that would include COVID-19. He adds that pool operators also need to observe strict hygiene protocols, including correct maintenance of pool water and air in the facility, as well as heightened levels of cleaning of adjacent surfaces and environments, since the fundamental mode of transmission of COVID-19 is air and not water.

It is likely that if your favorite pool is reopening, the pool operator is aware of the necessary protocols and has trained the staff properly. Those of us who will be using the pool to teach or participate in a water fitness class also need to do our part. Yes Fitness Music has made the following suggestions:

  1. Outdoor pools are safer because air circulation outdoors is better than indoor air circulation.
  2. Our Texas sun and heat often makes an indoor pool preferable. Ask about the air ventilation. Fresh air is better. If the air is recycled, it should go through a filtration system.
  3. Wear a mask.
  4. Maintain social distancing, 6 feet away from the other swimmers or class participants.
  5. Wash your clothing, towels and masks directly after class.

We can all do our part to protect ourselves and those around us. Enjoy the pool safely!

Chris Alexander

Keep Your Inner Core Strong

Muscles of the Inner Core

Most of the time when we hear the word “core” we think of our abdominals. And in fact it is important to keep the abdominals and all the other muscles of the trunk strong. These muscles work together to maintain good posture and to support and move the shoulders, the back and the hips. They are often referred to as the powerhouse of the body, stabilizing the trunk and allowing us to move our arms and legs powerfully and safely during exercise.

Beneath these core muscles are the muscles of the inner core and they have an important job to do. The brain is protected by the skull, the heart and lungs are protected by the rib cage, and the female reproductive organs are protected by the pelvic bone. But the remaining organs are protected by the inner core. The muscles of the inner core are the diaphragm at the top, the multifidus in the back, the transverse abdominis in the front, and the pelvic floor at the bottom. A weakness in the diaphram can lead to reflux. A weakness in the multifidus can lead to slipped discs, a weakness in the transverse abdominis can lead to a hernia. And a weakness in the pelvic floor can lead to incontinence.

Women are more likely than men to suffer from incontinence. However, in men sometimes an enlarged prostate exerts pressure on the urinary tract, controlling the flow of urine, and then the pelvic floor becomes weak. If the prostate is surgically removed, men will have a more serious issue with incontinence. Therefore, both men and women are encouraged to include pelvic floor exercises in their fitness routine. The Harvard Medical School recently published an article entitled “5 of the Best Exercises You Can Ever Do” which listed Kegel exercises as one of the five for both men and women. You can access the article at https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/5-of-the-best-exercises-you-can-ever-do

Exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor are less often called Kegels because the research has changed the way the exercises are performed. To perform core contraction correctly, lift the pelvic floor and then gently draw in the transverse abdominis. There should be no change in your breathing. Incorrect core contraction involves strongly bracing the abdominals before lifting the pelvic floor, but this bracing puts downward pressure on the pelvic floor. Furthermore, you typically hold your breath during a strong brace of the core. Instead, keep your upper abdominals relaxed. Perform the exercise gently and slowly. Activate the pelvic floor smoothly. Draw in from the pubic bone. Use 30% effort when drawing in the transverse abdominis. Your breathing is gentle and continuous.

How long to hold the core contraction depends on the type of incontinence you are having a problem with (or wish to avoid). Stress incontinence is leaking when sneezing, coughing, etc. For this do 10 quick pelvic floor lifts 2 or 3 times a day. Urge incontinence is leaking on the way to the bathroom. For this do a maximum of 10 repetitions at a time, hold the contraction for 10 seconds at most, and take a 30 second break in between contractions.

My resource for this information is Marietta Mehanni, the pelvic floor ambassador in Australia, who presented a workshop entitled “Aquacise Your Pelvic Floor” for the Metroplex Association of Aquatic Professionals in Dallas on October 5, 2019. As you might guess, pelvic floor exercises can be done in a water fitness class.

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander