Swimming Past Pain

Water-based workouts help you get fit or rehab from injury.

By Claire Sykes

June 2006

Every living thing is made up mostly of water—humans spend nine months floating in fluid before birth. So doesn’t it make sense to exercise in water?

Water-based workouts couldn’t be more fun; the buoyancy lets you do things you could never do on land. Where else can you propel yourself forward like a bird in flight, or bring both knees up to your chest without falling? Meanwhile, you’re working more of your muscles simultaneously than in most other forms of exercise. Swimming and water training (also called aquafitness) benefits anyone who wants to trim and tone, or who is less fit or physically limited. And if you’re recovering from injury or surgery, therapeutic waterwork is a great way to rehab.

Easy Does It

When you’re in water there’s no gravity to compress your joints so it’s much gentler than exercising on land. “Also, water offers 12 to 14 times more resistance than air to every move you make,” says John Spannuth, president and CEO of the US Water Fitness Association in Boynton Beach, Florida (www.uswfa.com, 561-732-9908). Exercising in water builds strength and endurance, improves flexibility and balance, strengthens the heart and increases circulation, controls weight and enhances physique, and relieves tension and stress.

Water exercise can keep you clear-headed for those hectic days at work and in shape for other physical activities. Says 75-year-old Robert Beach, a senior judge and competitive swimmer in St. Petersburg, Florida: “I’ve hiked the Himalayas and the Rockies, have traveled in over 100 countries, and I rarely get sick. A lot of this I attribute to swimming.” For the past 38 years, he has been lap swimming two-and-a-half miles per day, five days a week. “It’s therapeutic, physically and emotionally,” he continues. “My job is very demanding. But isolated in the pool from others, I can concentrate on whatever problems are before me, or leave them entirely aside for a while.”

Swimming’s controlled, rhythmic breathing is also meditative while sending more oxygen to the muscles and developing lung capacity. “Swimming is a symmetrical activity, exercising the right and left halves of the body equally,” says Dr. Leslie Hewitt, chiropractor and master trainer aquafitness instructor in Danville, California. “This not only helps with overall muscle balance, but also works the right and left hemispheres of the brain, sending signals to all of your muscles, organs and cells throughout your whole body.”

What if, like 96% of the US population, you can’t swim 400 yards without stopping? Don’t let that keep you out of the water. Water exercise is for anyone—from those wanting to overcome their fear of water to those who can’t get enough of the stuff. Even pro athletes are turning to aquafitness. “By doing certain water exercises, basketball players have increased their vertical jump two to three inches, and many college football teams have aquatic therapy programs,” says Spannuth.
Aquafitness options abound: water walking and aerobics, deep-water exercise (with a flotation device), wall exercises (while holding onto the side of the pool), and water yoga and tai chi. Enhance your workout with webbed gloves, hand-held barbells, swim fins and kick boards. “You can even sweat, depending on how much you exert yourself,” Spannuth says.

Watery Rehab

Head for the pool next time your arthritis flares up, as water exercise can help heal injuries. “The weight of water is massaging, as it is constantly pushing against you even when you’re motionless,” says Spannuth. Adds Sandy Miller, certified master water fitness instructor in Longview, Texas: “Whichever way you move, you’re hitting the resistance of the water and working the entire muscle.

And because you’re buoyant, you’re not exacerbating the original injury.”

For rehabilitation, Miller recommends a water temperature “between 80 and 85 degrees, if you’re swimming on the surface. If you’re standing or otherwise fully submerged, then it should be at least 85 degrees but no more than 88.” You want the water warm enough so you don’t get chilled, yet cool enough to do its job. Adds Hewitt: “A water temperature cooler than normal body temp can decrease inflammation if you swim for 20 or more minutes, having the same effect as applying ice.”

“It’s amazing how people will have pain before and after they’ve been in the water, but not while they’re in it,” says Miller. If you’re experiencing either new or more pain while in the water, you could be overexerting yourself or working your body the wrong way. To avoid injury:


• Get medical approval before starting any aquafitness activity.
• Start easy and build slowly.
• Never totally straighten your limbs to avoid hyperextending joints.
• Always do jumping jacks while submerged, so you don’t slap the surface.


Water exercise can also invite problems due to sun exposure, pool chemicals and possible earache or athlete’s foot. “But there’s not the joint stress and strain you get from running or the risk of a bad bicycle accident,” says Beach. “And you can do water exercise into your old age and stay aerobically fit throughout your whole life.”

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