Water Exercise – For Memorial Day and Year Round

Written by

May 21, 2014

Perhaps you think of pool exercise as being only for skilled swimmers or for those needing rehab for a joint. Well, think again! Swimmer or not, water is a great medium for athletes to cross-train, those with joint or weight-bearing issues to exercise, and for everyone to have a fun time. As someone who spends many hours at the gym, I can tell you, exercising in the water – alone or with a group – is a challenging way to do total-body exercise for cardio, balance, strength and toning, is easy to adjust for all levels of ability and fitness … and is the best way to feel like a kid while exercising.

Water decreases the part of your weight that hits the ground. The deeper it is, the more it reduces your weight. In waist-deep water, 50% of your body weight is supported by the water, in chest-deep water, 75% is. That means your hips, knees and ankles are bearing so much less than on land. Related to that, however, the water also creates resistance to movement. Trying to walk in waist-deep water is difficult, and becomes much more difficult the deeper the water is. Similarly, walking forwards or backwards is more difficult than walking sideways because you have to push more water out of the way in order to move. Styrofoam dumbbells become heavy underwater because you need to displace the water that is in their path – same concept.

According to Maggie Zimmerman, a land and water fitness instructor at Equinox and other Washington, DC area gyms, the same way the water prevents easy movement, the pressure also supports your limbs through a greater range of motion than on land, resulting in improved joint mobility. With over 30 years of teaching experience, she finds that, “healthy, pregnant, back-injured, hip-injured, knee-injured, and shoulder-injured persons have found relief, comfort, safety and challenge by using the water as their gym.” It can also provide great cross-training for runners who want to exercise without pounding the pavement.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a swimmer or an athlete, you can enjoy aqua aerobics. Start in water shallow enough to stand and start with walking. For less stress on the joints, you can use a flotation belt, styrofoam dumbbells or a ‘noodle’ in deeper water, so your feet don’t actually touch bottom. Any exercise that can be done on land can be done in the water – these are well demonstrated in the articles referenced below. You can get cardio exercise with walking, jogging or biking (and, of course, swimming) in the pool; range of motion with slow stretches, kicks, lunges and squats; toning and strength with water weights and many of the repetitive exercises; and core strengthening and balance just trying to stay in place or using some of the pool toys like kickboards and noodles. The most challenging for me is holding a noodle in a U-shape and trying to stand on it while it is trying to float to the surface. If you try this, be sure not to be near any walls or people, as you may be catapulted as I was! The ‘regulars’ in the class were not having this problem – it’s an acquired talent – improved balance that comes with practice.

In general, those with osteoarthritis or back pain feel less pain while exercising in water, and are able to build strength in the surrounding muscles, which should also benefit the joints. That’s not to say that this exercise improves the arthritis, but it allows you to exercise with less pain and strain, and therefore decreases your risk for heart disease, diabetes and so on. As with any new exercise, do a minimal amount at first and skip the next day to see if there are any ill effects. If there’s no problem, slowly increase what you do. Even with water exercises, you can overuse a joint. If you are under the care of a physician for a joint issue, be sure to check with them before starting a new exercise routine.

According to Johns Hopkins University, a good temperature range for most pool exercises is 82-86 degrees. Therapeutic pools at 92-96 degrees are appropriate for gentle range of motion for problem joints. Pools are usually kept at the lower range, but still warm enough to relax tense muscles in most people.  For fibromyalgia, there are recommendations that over 89.6 degrees is beneficial; warm water exercise can help improve perception of pain and the number of tender points, as well as reduce anxiety and depression.

Be sure to drink enough water, since you can sweat and become dehydrated even while exercising in water.

What are the downsides of water exercise? Well, you have to have a pool or other body of water available and be willing to get your hair wet. Because it’s less weight-bearing, it can not increase bone density as land exercise can. The chlorine or salt water can be irritating to the skin. And, as with any exercise, you should check with your physician to be sure it’s right for you, particularly if you have an neurologic issues such as seizures or multiple sclerosis.

Overall, exercise in the water is good for your fitness (and therefore your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes), your joints and your balance. And, if you can exercise in a group setting, you also get the added benefit of friendship and obligation to return week after week. Consider this as a fun new activity to start now and continue year-round.


1) http://backandneck.about.com/od/exerciseandsport/ss/waterexercisero.htm – good basic exercises including walking, biking, kicking, abs, seated V and cool down.
2) http://www.lifescript.com/diet-fitness/articles/m/make_a_splash_8_pool_exercises_to_burn_fat_fast.aspx – these are more advanced water exercises
3) http://chronicfatigue.about.com/od/treatingfmscfs/a/warmwaterFMS.htm
4) http://osteoarthritis.about.com/od/osteoarthritisexercise/a/water_exercise.htm
5) http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/fitness_articles.asp?id=1500