Is Water Exercise Right for Me?


Guest post by Lizzy Bullock / AquaGear Swim Shop

Aquatic exercise is one of the oldest methods of fitness and rehabilitation, used for healing purposes as early as 2400 B.C., according to “Hydrotherapy.” Even the most recognized man in the history of medicine, Hippocrates, noted water’s remedial effect on a range of maladies from joint pain to muscle spasms. Though traditional treatments were typically passive, involving sitting in and drinking the water, 20th-century physicians embraced the use of underwater exercise as a more potent form of healing and strength-building. And, as the twenty-first century begins, doctors and therapists worldwide have accepted the exercise and restorative benefits of water like pain relief, cardiovascular conditioning, weight loss, and post-injury rehab. If you’re not sure if aquatic exercise is right for your unique physiology or condition, this article is for you.

If You’re in Pain

Swimming is widely recognized for its ability to relieve pain, both chronic and temporary. People with rheumatoid arthritis and ostearthritis stand to benefit just from being in water, which relieves joint stress through weightlessness and provides improved circulation and reduced inflammation. The Arthritis Foundation recommends water-walking, water-jogging, and swimming to build muscle without putting pressure on the joints. By increasing muscle mass and shedding fat, less weight rests on the joints and bones on land, lessening aches and pains caused by arthritis.

People with other chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis also find relief in the water. The American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA) touts water exercise as a beneficial activity for subduing pain, maintaining cardiovascular health, and promoting flexibility and strength. Though it may seem easier to remain motionless or to rest when in pain, most chronic conditions worsen when left unaddressed. ACPA is careful to remind people suffering from ongoing pain to stay in motion so as not to aggravate their symptoms through loss of muscle tone and range of motion.

Even if you’re in pain due to a recent injury or surgery, aquatic exercise assists in recovery more effectively than land-based exercise. Because you’re not bearing weight, you won’t be stressing the very joints and bones you’re trying to rehabilitate. Athletes like Linda Huey, Wilt Chamberlain, and Florence “FloJo” Griffith Joyner have long relied on hydrotherapy to heal hip and leg injuries quickly and without undue force, allowing them to return to their former lifestyles. A 2014 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that even patients with spinal cord injuries found quicker rehabilitation in the water than their counterparts did on land.

If You’re Overweight

Aside from the pain-relieving effects of water, lap-swimming and aqua aerobics also slim the body better than most land-based workouts. For example, a 200-pound adult who swims vigorously for one hour burns an average of 892 calories—that’s more than the same person could burn in an hour of running or playing tennis. And, because 90 percent of weight is eliminated when submerged to the neck, pressure is removed from the bones and joints, allowing for a pain-free workout. For this same reason, people who are overweight have an easier time committing to aquatic exercise because they can work out for longer periods without feeling fatigued or distressed.

While the American College of Sports Medicine prescribes 60-90 minutes of exercise a day for weight loss, the Obesity Action Coalition recommends starting out slowly if you’re new to exercise. A workout of 30 minutes per day is appropriate, and this can even be broken into smaller bouts of exercise, 10 or 15 minutes at a time.

If You’re Disabled

People suffering from debilitating conditions like paralysis, amputation, and traumatic brain injury (TBI) also find comfort in water’s all-accepting environment.

The Amputee Coalition advocates water exercise as both physically and mentally beneficial for those who’ve lost one or more limbs. Not only does water provide a safe environment to achieve an intense cardio workout, the pool’s zero-gravity arena also affords amputees a sense of balance, accomplishment, and normalcy.

Water also provides the ideal space for those with spinal cord and brain injuries to access full-body exercise without risk of falling or injury. Doctors at California State University cite water’s buoyancy and resistance as particularly beneficial in assisting TBI and spinal cord injury patients with regaining control of bodily movements. A 2010 study by Dr. Kurt A. Mossberg compared exercise modalities for patients with traumatic brain injuries. He found that those who participated in aquatic exercise saw greater increases in strength and body composition than their peers in the control group, making water the ideal place to take back your autonomy.

Of course, it’s important to ask your doctor or physical therapist about starting a new workout program before you dive in. Once you’re cleared for aquatic exercise, you can take your workouts to the water. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, ease pain symptoms or regain your independence, the pool is the perfect place to start.


AUTHOR BIO: This article was written by Lizzy Bullock, a swimmer, Red Cross certified swimming instructor (WSI) and swimming coach with over a decade of experience working with infants, children, and adults. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear Swim Shop.


Photo courtesy of Lizzy Bullock

About Author

Production engineer and certified swim coach. Full-time IT consultant, spare-time swimming aficionado. 2 sons, 2 daughters and a wife. President of the Faroe Islands Swimming Association. Likes to run :-)

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