You needn’t swim, or even know how to swim, to get health benefits from water exercise. Exercising in the water increases strength, flexibility, and endurance, while reducing stress on joints. When supported by shoulder-depth water, your body, in effect, loses 90 percent of its weight; and in waist-high water, about 50 percent. Thus water exercise is excellent for those with arthritic joints and for rehabilitation after injury. Depending on the type of workout you choose, you can burn 8 to 12 calories a minute—that’s more than some intense types of exercise on land, because of the resistance provided by water.
There are dozens of good routines for shoulder-depth water. Deep-water exercise, where your feet don’t touch bottom, is good, too, but you will need a flotation belt. Actually, one of the best water exercises is plain walking or running in knee-deep water: forwards, backwards, sideways. You don’t need any equipment, and it keeps your hair dry! Walking at a steady pace in water burns as much as 500 calories an hour. In fact, almost any kind of vigorous movement in the water is beneficial.
If you don’t have access to a pool, consider joining a gym, health club, or the Y. If you’re doing water workouts for rehabilitation, your doctor or physical therapist should be able to direct you to a good program. The Arthritis Foundation has co-developed (with the YMCA) a program called the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program (AFAP), which is taught in locations throughout the country. To find a class year you, call your local YMCA, fitness center, or Arthritis Foundation office.
Water temperature note: 83° to 88° F. is considered ideal for water workouts. Under 78° may feel too cold and may aggravate arthritis. Over 88° makes it hard to dissipate heat and may increase heart rate too much. Wearing a swim cap, by the way, may make you feel hotter.
Equipment and clothing
- You can wear a bathing suit, or a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. If you want to dress up your workout a bit, you can buy chlorine-resistant Lycra shorts, tops, and leotards designed for water exercise. If you have arthritis, a wetsuit or unitard might be a good investment since it offers additional warmth.
- Rubber slippers with nonskid, cushioned soles or “aqua” sandals of rubberized materials will protect your feet from rough surfaces in the pool and from rocks at the lake or beach.
- A flotation belt or vest is a good idea for deep-water exercise, and newer belts are thin and trim. These devices keep your head above water and free your body for constant motion. Such devices cost less than $50.
- A wide variety of workout equipment is available at reasonable prices in swim shops, sporting-goods stores, and online: webbed gloves, buoyant ankle cuffs, fins, buoyant dumbbells, hand paddles, and kick boards, to name a few. Remember that buoyant cuffs for hands or ankles add resistance and increase the workload, which you may or may not like. First, learn to enjoy the exercise without the gadgets. Try out equipment, if possible, before you purchase. If you take an aquatics class, equipment will usually be supplied.
- You can buy a waterproof audio device to play your favorite music, if you like to work out to a beat.