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Can the New Wave of Watery Workouts Help Your Arthritis?

Water exercise can be beneficial to many people -- young and old.

Who Can Benefit From Water Exercise? continued...

While water significantly reduces exercise's impact to the back and joints, running and other vertical shallow-water exercises do cause some impact. That's one reason experts advise wearing shoes. "Initially, any type of shoe will work," says See. "You don't want to invest a lot of money when you start an exercise program." For starters, she suggests lightweight sneakers such as Keds. "Once you get hooked on water, which usually takes a couple of weeks, invest in a better shoe."

Water provides at least 12 times greater resistance than air, and in every direction. "No matter which way you move, it challenges you," says Katz. "You don't need equipment, you don't need an Olympic-sized pool. All you need is your body."

Water cools your body and prevents overheating. See points out that even in 80- to 85-degree water, the recommended temperature for exercise, you should warm up in the water before your workout to prevent injury. Just as with a land workout, you will sweat during water exercises, so it's important to drink water.

Intimidation may not be the first thing you think of when you consider the differences between land and water exercise. But it's important, because concern about appearance or proper technique prevents many people from being physically active.

"Water is democratic," says See. "Once you're in the pool, we're all the same. There's less intimidation than walking into an aerobics studio surrounded by mirrors. You don't have to wear a swimsuit. If you're more comfortable, wear Lycra pants and a T-shirt. And it doesn't matter if you're on the wrong foot. As long as you're moving, you're getting the benefit."

Can It Help Me Lose Weight?

There's debate as to how efficiently water exercise burns calories. Katz says there's some evidence that water exercise isn't as effective as land exercise for losing body fat. One reason is that the big muscles in the legs and buttocks don't have to work as hard in water.

Nevertheless, she says, water exercise can contribute to weight management. Strenuous exercise curbs appetite and promotes relaxation, factors in controlling compulsive eating.

Also, studies of water walking have showed that the number of calories burned increases with the depth of the water. Katz says a half-hour of deep-water running burns 300 calories, compared with 200-250 for running on land, 150 for tennis, and 150-200 for aerobics. Also, a 150-pound person swimming at his or her target heart rate burns about 600 calories per hour.

Choosing a Water Exercise Program

Here's a roundup of some popular types of water workouts:

  • Aerobics. Water aerobics classes feature vertical exercises that often mimic land exercises, like dancing, walking, running, jumping jacks, and kickboxing. While swimming is a horizontal exercise performed on the top of the water, vertical exercises increase the workload because they're done below the surface where drag is greater. If you're just beginning an exercise program, start slowly by walking in shallow water. Gradually increase the intensity of your workout by moving to waist-high, then chest-high water, and adding movements that use both arms and legs. Always do a five-minute warm-up and cool-down.
  • Deep-water exercise. Deep water provides a no-impact workout and has long been associated with rehabilitation, but it's also a great place to get a high-intensity athletic workout while preventing overuse injuries. Using flotation belts, you can jog, run, do sit-ups, and more.
  • Swimming laps. Katz says many people think swimming laps is boring, but there are ways to vary routines: learning different strokes, practicing dives and turns, and adding equipment such as kickboards, foam noodles, and fins. Even if you do land exercises before entering the water, always begin your session with a warm-up, which can be a few laps of very relaxed swimming, to raise your core body temperature and put your body in the groove for swimming. A beginner -- someone who can swim 10-25 yards without stopping -- should plan a 30-minute workout that includes a 10-minute warm-up, 15-minute main set, and five-minute cooldown. Katz advocates a progressive program that takes swimmers from a total distance of 100 yards up to two miles. As your speed and endurance improve, you'll want to add strokes to your repertoire, time yourself on the different strokes, and test your endurance.
  • Holistic workout. Take your favorite yoga, Pilates, and tai chi exercises to the water or join a class to learn these popular mind/body movements. Some exercises offer multiple benefits. For example, the yoga "warrior" position performed in waist-high water provides relaxation, relieves stiffness in the waist and rib areas, stretches the entire body, and strengthens arms and legs. Water's support and the fluid movements of these exercises make them ideal during pregnancy and rehabilitation. Katz recommends 30-minute routines that include five minutes each of warm-up and cool-down. The workouts can focus on relaxation, strength and toning, cardiovascular and aerobic exercise, or flexibility.
  • Sport-specific workouts. Katz says water workouts add variety to sports conditioning, offer relief in hot weather, and enable training to continue after an injury. In addition, you can isolate certain moves and reinforce them in the water. For example, a golfer, tennis player, or baseball player could stand in chest-deep water and practice their swings, paying close attention to proper technique. Resistance devices, such as paddles, can be used to make the workout more challenging. For variety, do an aquatic circuit-training workout that incorporates exercises such as boxing punches, soccer kicks, and cross-country skiing movements.
  • Prescriptive workouts. For the past 25 years, water exercise has been "prescribed" for people with arthritis. It improves range of motion and flexibility and relieves joint pain and stiffness. Lesser-known but equally important are workouts that target other health conditions, including asthma, obesity, pregnancy, back problems and more. Experts advise consulting with your doctor before beginning a program.

Many gyms now offer a variety of aquatic exercise programs. But if you don't have access to a water exercise class, don't despair. Books and videos are excellent ways to learn proper techniques and create your own program.

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Reviewed on March 24, 2008

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