Wading (Literally) into Fitness

As a kid I loved going to our local pool each summer. It was a great way to beat the heat, see friends, and have fun.

As an adult, I heard over and over again that exercise in the water was beneficial; I spent a lot of time during my days at the Seminary in the Columbia University swimming pool, and have continued to lap swim up until just a few years ago. I did not stop because I did not like it, but rather because my interests took me elsewhere (running and bicycling). After I became a fitness professional, I learned that there is more to the swimming pool than just swimming. Water aerobics and other water fitness classes can play an important role in better health outcomes, especially as we age. I experienced this first-hand when I was recovering from surgery on my foot and was allowed to participate in water aerobics.

Just as in childhood days, being in the pool is fun and it still helps to beat the heat, but is there an advantage for older adults to exercise in the water as opposed to on dry land? Two recent Australian studies were published in Journal of Sport and Health Science and Journal of Science and Medicine and Sport that indicate that this kind of exercise has a positive impact on cardiorespiratory health–aside from other benefits.

The studies took 72 men and women averaging 62 years of age. All were mostly sedentary, and were randomly assigned to 3 groups: 1. water walking, 2. land walking, and 3. no changes (control group). Groups 1 and 2 increased intensity during the 24 weeks of the research program. Compared to the control group, these two groups saw an increase in maximal aerobic capacity of 4%, a measure that shows how well the heart and veins circulate blood to the rest of the body. Interestingly, they also saw a decrease in visceral fat which is associated with cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance. The water walking group also saw improvement in lower limb lean muscle mass–most likely a result of resistance provided by the water.

This news is especially welcome since many older adults avoid walking due to fears of falling. Additionally, those with joint problems may find it easier to do exercises in water and see less impact on affected areas. And did we mention, it is fun? The more enjoyable it is, the more likely we are to stick with the program.

4% may not seem like a huge difference, but even small increases in aerobic capacity have been shown over and over again to decrease mortality from cardiovascular disease. So, what are you waiting for? Come on in, the water is fine!