If you’ve ever thought about water exercise, you probably thought of it in terms of injury rehab, physical therapy, or a social activity for retired ladies. It can, in fact, be all those things, and I admit that when I attended my first water exercise class, that is what I was expecting.
Wrong. I have never been more wrong.
Have you ever heard one of those stories about a mugger who mistook gray hair for a sign of vulnerability? You know, the ones that end with a mugger getting beaten with a handbag, because anyone who has been alive long enough to have gray hair probably doesn’t want to put up with any more foolishness? My first aquatic exercise class was the metaphorical equivalent of that experience. Although I’m a distance runner and have spent most of my adult life involved in fitness one way or another, it didn’t matter what exercise we were doing, or how many people around me made it look easy, I was doing it wrong.
Now, I realize that “I was terrible, can’t wait to do it again” isn’t the criteria for everyone’s bucket list, but the things that made water exercise so challenging are also the things that made me fall in love with it. (I went to every water exercise class I could manage, and pursued instructor certification. You may consider that overkill, but I’ve always said that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and it seems this was no exception.)
I happen to be a person who struggles with including cross training and recovery in my weekly plan. Cross training is often less fun than my preferred activity (mostly running) and feels like it takes time away from things I would rather be doing. And while I know that I cannot make progress without taking time for recovery, recovery days still very often leave me feeling restless and like I want to MOVE.
What water exercise has given me (after I mastered the basics and stopped flopping around like a cat in the bathtub) is a powerful cross training option that multi tasks; it boosts my recovery at the same time it boosts my training plan.
The reason for that is also the reason for the association between water exercise and rehab or therapy. The extreme accessibility of water exercise comes from the properties of the water — primarily buoyancy. That’s why you, if you’re like me, have associated it with programs for people with chronic pain, mobility issues, injuries, and other limiting factors.
What I didn’t know is that buoyancy also creates a need to stabilize yourself while the water lifts you, which activates the muscles in your core. This makes every water exercise a core exercise. That makes every water workout a two-fer — whatever muscles I am targeting plus core. Since poor core strength leads to poor form for every type of activity, and poor form leads to injuries, having a core component for every minute of my cross training was amazing.
Another thing that makes water workouts so efficient is that the resistance comes from the water rather than from gravity — meaning that instead of having to do one exercise that isolates the biceps and one that isolates the triceps, I can do one exercise that works both. That leads to a more balanced workout in half the time.
But the real epiphany came when I realized that water workouts have so little impact on my joints. Exercising in deep water is “zero impact,” meaning the stress from hitting the ground is entirely absent. Exercise in shallow water ranges from 20% impact to 50% impact, meaning the stress from hitting the ground is greatly reduced. Adding one zero impact workout a week supercharged my weekly fitness plan. It made more room for things that just make me happy. I can run after flowers, or to pet all the dogs, or because a friend wants company. I can play tag with the kids. Help someone move. Whatever I need to make room for in my life is easier to fit in because I don’t have to plan as much recovery as I would if that workout was land based.
In other words, I’m able to exercise more and recover less. Some weeks I only use water workouts for my active recovery, and some weeks I use a more intense water workout to make up for miles I missed due to illness, weather, or schedule conflicts, and the payoff is reduced soreness and fatigue, even when I’m in a “loading” phase of progressively harder workouts each week. If that sounds good, all it takes to get started is a swimsuit and access to a pool.
Author Meghan Gray is a Red Cross WSI and a water exercise instructor certified by the Aquatic Exercise Association teaching at Mt Vernon REC Center.