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

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 linkhttps://youtu.be/g5V0lzwTi40 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 https://youtu.be/ZDJnhaxP5cU 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 Amazon.com  

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


What is fitness?

Frequently fitness is equated with a number on the bathroom scale, but fitness is much more than body mass index. Physical fitness has two components, the health-related components and the skill-related components. The health-related components are cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. The skill related components are agility, balance, coordination and power.

Cardiorespiratory endurance. This is the ability of your heart to deliver oxygen to your working muscles for a sustained period of time. Your muscles need oxygen to burn the calories you use during aerobic exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you get 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week to keep your heart strong. Obviously, everyone wants a strong heart muscle! Cardiorespiratory endurance allows you to participate in recreational activities, play with grandchildren and do all the walking you have planned for your vacation.

Muscular strength. This is measured by determining what is the heaviest weight you can lift one time. If the heaviest weight you can lift is 10 lbs. then you will have trouble carrying a 20 lb. sack of fertilizer to the front yard, bringing in the bag of groceries the sacker put all your heavy items in, or picking up your 18 lb. grandchild without injuring yourself. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 2-3 sessions of strength training every week. Failure to work on strength results in loss of muscle mass and increasing weakness.

Muscular endurance. This is the ability to lift a weight repeatedly or to hold that weight up for a sustained period of time. You need muscular endurance to continue using tools until your project is completed, to spread mulch in the flower beds, and to carry a child through the parking lot. To work on muscular endurance you lift lighter weights 12-20 repetitions; to work on muscular strength you lift heavier weights 2-10 repetitions. The good news is that improving strength also improves endurance and vice versa.

Flexibility. This is the ability of your arms and legs to move at the joints through a complete range of motion. Flexibility reduces the risk of injury. A decrease in flexibility makes it harder to move and perform the activities of daily living. To maintain flexibility, joints must be taken through their full range of motion on a regular basis. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching 2-3 days each week. Hold each stretch 10-30 seconds, then repeat each stretch 2-4 times, accumulating 60 seconds per stretch. The best time to stretch is immediately following an exercise program.

Body composition. This refers to your percentage of fat as compared to lean tissue, that is bones, muscles and organs. You need an adequate amount of muscle to increase your stamina and boost metabolism. Too high a percentage of fat increases your risk of disease. Exercise can help improve body composition.

Skill related components of physical fitness. Agility is the ability to change body positioning in space quickly and accurately. You need agility when your cat or dog plops down in front of you and you have to suddenly maneuver to avoid tripping over him or stepping on his tail. Balance is the ability to maintain equilibrium both while standing and while moving. Poor balance leads to falls. Coordination allows you to use your vision and hearing in conjunction with your muscles to perform motor tasks. That’s why it is important to get your vision and hearing tested regularly. Power is the ability to react quickly when something happens. Improvements in agility, balance, coordination and power come with practice and repetition. In a water fitness class you are practicing these skills when you move from one exercise to another, change tempo from slower to faster, change direction of travel, perform one-footed moves and various other exercises.

Information for this article comes from AEA’s Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual (2018) and from the American College of Sports Medicine’s website https://www.ascm.org Water fitness exercises for all the components of physical fitness can be found in my books Water Fitness Progressions and Water Fitness Lesson Plans and Choreography. To purchase the books from the publisher, Human Kinetics, click on the title or look for them on Amazon.com.

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander

Why Exercise?

I have been teaching water fitness for 26 years. Clearly I enjoy exercising. But I know there are a lot of people out there who do not exercise. The excuses include not being motivated, not having enough time, being too tired, exercise is not fun, being too out of shape and not liking to sweat.

Motivation. Everyone wants to look younger and live longer. The secret to longer life is not a magic pill but exercise. Scientists can predict how long someone will live by how well they perform 5 simple tasks. How many times can you stand up from a chair and sit back down in 60 seconds? How long can you balance on one leg? How long is your stride length? How is your grip strength? How good is your posture? A good reason to exercise is to make improvements in these areas to improve your longevity and make the activities of everyday life easier.

Not Enough Time. Instead of trying to find time, try to make time. Some activity is better than none. Find a time during your day when you are free of commitments and schedule some exercise during that time. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Start with 10 minutes and increase it by a minute a week. Soon it will become part of your routine.

The remaining excuses. Once your fitness starts to improve, you will find you have increased energy. If one type of exercise is not fun, try something active that you do enjoy. Here’s where I put in a plug for water exercise. Hanging out in the pool when we were children was so much fun that many of us find getting in the water to exercise is really enjoyable. The buoyancy of the water supports your weight so that it seems easier to exercise even if you are out of shape. And the water cools your body so that you are not aware that you are sweating.

Many of the simple tasks that predict longevity can be worked on in the pool. Squats can improve your ability to stand up from a chair and sit back down. The pool is the perfect place to work on balance because the water supports the body and reduces the fear of falling while at the same time water movement makes balancing more challenging. You can work on increasing stride length by water walking. Hand grip exercisers are best for improving grip strength, but gripping pool equipment helps some. You can also concentrate on exercising with good posture in the water to help improve posture on land.

Exercising regularly makes the activities of daily life such as climbing stairs, playing with grandchildren and carrying groceries easier. It also improves blood flow to the brain which decreases the risk of cognitive decline. We cannot stop from aging, but we can work to maintain our functional fitness well into our retirement years.

See you in the pool!

Chris Alexander