Water Exercise

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Water exercise


Water exercise is a type of activity that is done in a body of water, such as a pool, a lake, or the ocean.

Sometimes, limited water exercise can be done in a spa or hot tub.


Exercise in the water is a low-impact activity that puts less stress on the joints. When the entire body is underwater, it experiences almost zero gravity since the water carries 90 percent of the body's weight. This buoyancy helps older adults by improving their balance and strength.

Water, also, offers resistance. It has 12 to 14 percent more resistance than air. This gentle friction aids in strengthening muscles and joints, especially for those recovering from an injury. Some people may choose to increase resistance by wearing wrist or ankle weights in shallow water to offer a more challenging workout.

Like land-based exercise, water exercise can increase cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and increase energy. It can also help people lose body fat. Exercising in the water can improve depression, anxiety , and self-esteem. It enhances flexibility, strengthens muscles, and improves circulation. Moreover, the hydrostatic pressure of the water helps increase heart and lung function. It also can encourage better blood flow to the muscles, especially the legs, much like support hosiery does.

Some activities in the water are done by individuals, such as swimming, water jogging, and water walking. Other activities can be done in a group. Those include water polo, water aerobics, water yoga , water tai chi , and water Pilates. All of these individual and group activities, except swimming, do not require skill in the water.

Little is needed in order to participate in water exercise besides swimwear. Some people may want to wear a swimming cap or goggles, but usually those are only worn by people who swim laps or engage in water polo. Some swimmers may want to use swim fins or a kickboard.

Water jogging is a deep-water workout that is done in water over the jogger's head. In order to stay afloat and keep the body upright, joggers wear a buoyancy belt with special floats that keep the person's feet off the bottom of the pool or lake and keep the head above the surface of the water. Water jogging can offer a very intense workout as the jogger does jumping jacks or moves the legs in movements that mimic jogging, cycling, or cross-country skiing on land. These activities place added demand on the heart and lungs, as well as on the jogger's ability to keep his or her balance.

Water exercise is often suggested for people who are obese because it puts less stress on the joints and it fosters more active participation because participants find exercising in water is easier to do. Nevertheless, a 2005 study showed that exercising in water to lose weight should be done in warm water, not cold water. The researchers found that participants ate more after exercising in cold water than they did after exercising in warm water.

People who have arthritis often find exercising in warm water easier to do than on land. The warm water soothes stiff joints and muscles and helps people warm-up before activity. Warm water raises body temperature, causing the blood vessels to dilate, thus increasing circulation. Water exercises for these patients can help knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, and even ankles and hands. Whatever body part is affected should be submerged in water, and all movements should be done slowly.


  • What kinds of water exercise do you recommend?
  • What are my limitations?
  • Do I need to see a physical therapist?
  • Where can I find water exercise programs?

People with osteoarthritis often can exercise at much higher intensities than they could on a mat in a gym on land. A study in 2003 found that not only were osteoarthritis patients who exercised in water able to improve their walking ability on land, but they also increased their independence .

Some people use a spa or hot tub as an adjunct to water exercise. The jet nozzles massage the body and help relax tight muscles. The size of the hot tub will determine what kinds of exercises can be done. If the feet or hands are of concern, then a smaller sized spa can help work these smaller joints and muscles. Obviously, a small spa would not allow for aerobic activities that work the larger muscles and joints. Also, time in a hot tub should be limited to 10 minutes, and temperatures should not exceed between 98 and 104 degrees F.


Anyone can participate in water exercise. Swimming is considered an activity that spans all generations, from infants to octogenarians. Water aerobics, water walking, and water yoga and tai chi, however, are most often activities that older adults enjoy. Young people who have had joint or back injuries may participate for a short time as a rehabilitation activity. Water jogging, though, has become an exercise that even athletes are engaging in because it offers a superior workout with little risk of injury.


The purpose of water exercise is to put the body through activity without adding extra stress and strain on the joints. Though people have been swimming and playing water polo for a long time, water exercise grew out of therapeutic exercise for people recovering from injury or conditions such as bursitis and sciatica . It also was and still is used for arthritis patients.


Before starting any exercise program, older adults should check with their doctors and explain the types of activities they want to do. It is important when starting a new exercise regime to start slowly and build up gradually. Older adults should go to the pool three times a week and start by doing a few repetitions or a couple of laps, if swimming. Then, gradually the person can increase swimming time to 20 or 30 minutes or exercise to 45 minutes.


Because exercising in water is easier to do, sometimes beginners can do too much. That is why it is important to warm up prior to the more vigorous part of the exercise session and to cool down afterwards. Those warm-ups should be stretches in the areas that will be exercised. Older adults should learn the difference between muscle pain and sore muscles. Muscle pain is more intense and lasts longer than a week. If that occurs, older adults should see their healthcare providers.

Most public or therapeutic pools keep water temperatures in the safe range, usually between 84 to 88 degrees F. Home indoor pools and spas should keep their temperatures in that range also. Though spas are usually hotter, older adults should limit their time in hot water to a few minutes. They may be able to stay in a warm pool safely for far longer. In addition, older adults may not realize that the water is too hot.

It should be noted that for water aerobics or other structured activity, a qualified instructor is essential. If older adults have specific problems, such as arthritis, then the instructor should have some knowledge of the disease. The Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program has qualified instructors who teach at YMCAs and community pools across the U.S.

In addition, older adults should never engage in water exercise without someone else near the pool. Most community pools, lakes, and beaches have lifeguards. Therapeutic pools also have therapist available to instruct in the proper exercise techniques. These pools also have pool attendants who keep track of people's time in the pool and are available if someone gets into difficulty.


Aerobics —Synchronized movements to strengthen muscles while exercising the heart and lungs.

Hydrostatic pressure —The pressure of the water against the body.

Pilates —A form of exercise that combines yoga, dance, and isometric exercises.

Tai chi —Based on an ancient form of Chinese martial arts, this form of exercise is a series of slow movements that improve balance and strength and also calms the mind.

Water Polo —A game played in the water with two teams trying to get a large ball through a hoop on each side of the pool.

Yoga —An ancient form of exercise that strengthens the spine and the muscles of the body while it calms the mind.


People who participate in water exercise can expect to have better flexibility, stronger muscles, and improved circulation. Participants can also have lower cholesterol and blood pressure readings. Some people can lose weight using this method of exercise. Most importantly, older people who regularly participate in water exercise have less depression and more self-esteem, as well as more independence as they gain confidence in a stronger body. Many people also report fewer falls after engaging in regular water exercise.



Archer, Shirley. “Tai chi and water exercise relieve arthritis pain.” IDEA Fitness Journal. (October 2007):95

“Exercise in cold water may increase appetite, University of Florida Study finds.” Ascribe Science News Service (May 4, 2005): NA

Mancini, Lee. “Swimming and water exercise.” Clinical Reference Systems. (May 31, 2007): NA

Sato, Daisuke; Kandeda, Koichi; Wakabayashi, Hitoshi; and Nomura, Takeo. “The water exercise improves helath-related quality of life of frail elderly people at day service facility.” Quality of Life Research. (December 2007):1577-1586


National Institute on Aging(NIA), 31 Center Drive, MSC 2292, Building 31, Room 5C27, Bethesda, Maryland, 20892, 301-496-1752, 301-496-1072, www.nia.nih.gov.

United States Water Fitness Association, P.O. Box 243279, Boynton Beach, FL, 33424-3279, 561-732-9908, 561-732-0950, [email protected], www.uswfa.com.

Janie F. Franz