I know, there’s something magical about outdoor swimming. But even as the weather gets cooler, there’s still magic in water wherever we find it.
I’ve loved to swim since I was a kid (got all the badges, from Fish to Junior Lifesaver :)). I first joined water aerobics classes when I was pregnant with my second child, and I’ve sought them out ever since, in settings ranging from a health club in Chile (with the most deliciously non-chlorinated, UV-purified water), my local gym, nearby county recreation centers and even my mom’s senior-living apartment complex.
Water exercise is one of the Three Ws(water, weights and walking) that I highly recommend for people who are facing limitations (like joint pain) or just starting out with regular physical movement. When I turned my health around in 2014, walking and water classes were the way I reached the recommended 150 minutes a week of exercise (I added weights later when I learned more). I soon started feeling the benefits: gradually reducing body fat, breathing more easily while walking up hills or stairs, noticing that my arms didn’t get so tired when cleaning windows 🙂
I love all the water exercise instructors and methods I’ve tried, but my favorite is Aqua Zumba with the fun and energetic (and totally fierce after 45) Elvie Whitmon! Zumba is an exercise class that uses world music and a set of dance-inspired movements. Aqua Zumba combines this with more traditional aqua aerobics moves. My first Aqua Zumba class with Elvie was in January 2014, and my most recent one was last night! There were about 20 participants with a wide range of ages, sizes and abilities (including three men). Elvie played a favorite request song: Chocolate (this Aqua Zumba video isn’t from our class but it gives you the idea!).
You might have a prejudice about water aerobics classes (I remember thinking that way!); maybe it seems like the participants are hardly moving and don’t really get a good workout compared to swimming laps or other kinds of exercise. It’s partly an illusion he water slows us down of course, so it may look like the people in the “Chocolate” YouTube video aren’t doing much. But water weighs 62.4 pounds per cubic foot! Those folks are pushing serious weight with every movement! And sure, sometimes people really do just stand there chatting with each other during a class, which used to drive me crazy at the rec center (I’m calmer now thanks to Positive Intelligence :)). But I choose to thrash the water as much as I can and get a fabulous, exhilarating whole-body workout. I feel better after water exercise than after any other type of workout I do, and I also receive extra benefits from being in the water.
Water is soothing and uplifting
Humans seem to have an instinctive positive response to water. Getting in the water is my anti-depressant, a colleague recently said to me. The book Blue Mind documents many physical and psychological health benefits from spending time in or even just near water. Being in the water even seems to induce a calmer, more meditative state.
Immersion in water benefits the body
Water lets us float which is such a relief, especially if we are suffering from joint pain. There’s something extra special about deep-water suspended classes (using a flotation belt or even a pool noodle).
The pressure and weight of the water also positively impact us:
Buoyancy represents the force that opposes gravity, and when the body is partially or fully immersed, pain reduction and improvement in exercise ability occur due to the reduction of stress or application of weight to specific body parts. Hydrostatic pressure promotes blood flow by varying the pressure exerted on the body according to the immersion depth, which results in increased blood flow to major organs (the heart, brain, and lungs) or the promotion of diuretic action. Resistance is the force that opposes bodily movement and is associated with the viscosity of the water and results in muscle strengthening.The Thermal Effects of Water Immersion on Health Outcomes: An Integrative Review (emphasis added)
Of course, we don’t get sweaty while exercising in water, and for many people (including me), it feels easier to burn the same number of calories in water as compared to land-based exercise. We even burn extra calories just because of the thermal effect of cool water.
Aqua classes have special advantages
Compared to swimming laps, organized water classes offer some special advantages. We don’t have to be good swimmers to participate, and we don’t even have to get our heads wet (for those thinking about hair or hygiene or who just don’t enjoy it). However, it is highly recommended to stand at a depth sufficient to get our arms underwater, to use the upper body and core to push and pull the water.
The social benefits are also significant. Group exercise gives us connection, motivation, accountability and more. Plus, every human culture has some kind of dance tradition — group movement with music — and aqua classes are a great way to connect with this deep element of our heritage. Personally, I’d have a hard time swimming laps or water-walking for a whole hour, but the time flies by with an enthusiastic group moving to fun songs.
Our bodies are underwater: no one can see what we’re doing In a water exercise class. There are fewer worries about how coordinated we are or whether we’re doing the right movement. As long as we’re moving in the water, were doing great!
Water classes can be a gateway to other fitness classes
Aqua Zumba was a key part of my journey to lose excess fat and get healthier in 2014. I joined the 24Hour Fitness gym specifically because they offered water classes, and I started going to Aqua Zumba with Elvie a few times a week. Other participants encouraged me to try Elvie’s regular Zumba class (land Zumba as I called it :)) in the fitness room, but I was so reluctant and full of excuses, “I’m not coordinated! I’ll get all sweaty! My knees hurt! I can’t dance! People will see me and I’ll be so embarrassed!”. I finally started attending, hiding first in the back row, and then behind a post in the middle of the room. Today I stand in the front row (off to the side)!
After land Zumba I gathered my courage to try other group classes, including Bodypump (weightlifting to music!) and Bodycombat (martial arts-inspired moves, also with great music). Wow! Was that really me?
I still participate in Aqua Zumba and water aerobics, and they are the most satisfying and best-feeling workouts I do all week — although I love everything else I do too: Elvie’s regular Zumba, Pilates at Epiphany Pilates, parkour-based PK Strength on Zoom, drop-in classes offered by Fit Pro Massage, my own weightlifting routines (thank you Holly Benson) and of course walking and riding my e-bike.
Water exercise is both strength-building and aerobic
As noted in the quote above, the resistance of water makes aqua exercise a strength workout as well as an aerobic one.
The health guidelines remind us to do 150 minutes a week of physical movement that increases our heart rate and our breathing, and also to challenge our muscles in some way twice a week. Water exercise, especially with aqua gloves or foam dumbbells to increase resistance, checks both boxes. However, note that water workouts are NOT weight-bearing exercise which we need to maintain strong bones. The other two Ws, walking and weightlifting, are great complements to water exercise.
Where to find water exercise
Check local gyms, fitness centers and even hotel pools (especially if you’re posted abroad). There are often senior programs and discounts that might start at a surprisingly early age. I’m fortunate that my gym membership is only about $50 a month and classes are included at no extra cost.
Here’s a link to find an Aqua Zumba class near you. If you live in Northern Virginia, Elvie teaches at McLean Sport&Health and substitutes at 24Hour Fitness Falls Church (she teaches regular Zumba there three times a week). The regular Aqua Zumba teacher, Ligia, is also fabulous! I just have an especially long and rewarding relationship with Elvie, who helped change my health and my life.
If you’re sensitive to chlorine, there are actually saltwater pools and pools purified in alternative ways. I can’t find any near me now (I did have that lovely experience in Chile!), but I hope you have better luck where you live!
What about COVID?
Ugh, COVID is still with us as we move into the autumn of 2022! But fortunately, the virus is very unlikely to spread through pool water. It’s a good idea to stand six feet apart from fellow exercisers, of course, and it’s not impossible to wear a mask during water aerobics, since you don’t have to get your head wet.
What if there aren’t any classes but you do have access to a pool?
Of course swimming laps is a classic whole-body workout. Friends who do this (thanks Emperatriz!) tell me about waterproof earbuds that let them listen to music or audiobooks while swimming. Nice!!
Water walking, especially with foam dumbbells or suspended with a float belt, is also a terrific option.
I know that even with all these advantages, water exercise isn’t an appropriate or accessible solution for everyone. But if you’re water-curious, I encourage you to give it a try! Gyms usually offer free trial passes, and recreation centers have drop-in rates. If you’re in the Washington DC area, come along with me to a class at the Spring Hill recreation center or 24Hour Fitness!
What experiences have you had with aqua fitness? Let me know in the comments!
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