WebMD Presents: Arthritis - Therapy in Motion - Aquatics

A Warm, Buoyant Workout

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD
3 min read

Every time you take a step, you put three to seven times the weight of your body on your joints. Take that same step in water, and the natural buoyancy of H2O gently lifts the pressure off your joints, while still allowing you to work your muscles.

People with arthritis increasingly turn to water exercise for several key reasons:

  • The buoyancy of water supports your joints while you exercise.
  • Warm water raises your body temperature, which increases your circulation, and can help ease stiffness.
  • Water provides greater resistance than air, helping you build muscle strength.

You don't have to be a strong swimmer to benefit from water exercises. In fact, you don't even have to know how to swim. Here's one that any landlubber can try:

Stand in water that's about waist high or a little deeper -- just as long as you're able to plant your feet on the bottom -- and hold your arms out to your sides for balance. Put your left foot in front of your right. Raise and bend your left knee. Then hop forward, pushing off with your right foot, landing on the left foot. Do it again, keeping the heel of the right foot up, pushing off with the toes and ball of the foot. Do this several times.

If you were to do this on dry land, the impact of landing would jar your joints, making you wince and holler, notes Bernard Rubin, chief of rheumatology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. In the water, however, the landing is soft because the water slows you down and buoys you up. Nevertheless, you're giving your leg muscles a good workout and you're increasing your heart rate.

Don't forget that exercise benefits the most important muscle of all -- your heart.

During exercise, you should raise your heart rate to 50-75% of your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate is your age subtracted from the number 220. So, if you're 60, your maximum heart rate is 160 beats per minute. If you haven't worked out in a long time, stay around 50% of your maximum while exercising: That's 80 beats per minute. After you've been exercising regularly for a while, try getting it up to 120 beats per minute, which is 75% of the maximum.

If possible, exercise in warm water, which will help ease pain in your joints and relax your muscles. Some people may want to do exercises while sitting in a hot tub or spa. If you don't want to buy one, you can join a health club that has one. Be sure to talk with your doctor before exercising in a hot tub. Warm water can cause problems for people with other medical problems, including high blood pressure.

To begin water exercises, contact The Arthritis Foundation or your local recreation center for a program near you. Many local YMCA, YWCA, or community centers offer pool exercise classes designed especially for people with arthritis. If you have a pool at home, you can buy tapes and books that teach you various water workout programs to do on your own. The Arthritis Foundation will send you a free booklet on water exercise, which you can order from their Web site (www.arthritis.org).