This time of year, swimming pools conjure up images of lazy afternoons trying to beat the heat. But at any time of the year, pools also can be a great option for a low-impact fitness regimen.
Not a swimmer, you say? You think a workout in the pool sounds about like dieting on ice cream? You may want to reconsider. Aqua or water aerobics classes are widely available, can be low-cost, and offer very real fitness dividends.
"You're using your core muscles and improving your balance without even knowing it," said Tara Murphy, aquatic director for Genesis Health Clubs, who calls water fitness "the fountain of youth."
Water aerobics, like any aerobic exercise, is designed not only to burn calories, but also to increase your heart rate, thereby boosting the amount of oxygen in your blood through faster and deeper breathing.
The increased oxygen in your body results in more blood flow to your muscles, and back to your lungs. It enables your smaller blood vessels to flush out waste products such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide. And, as an added bonus, aerobic exercise encourages your body to produce endorphins, those naturally occurring chemicals in your brain that improve your mood and sense of well-being.
If you've ever participated in a land-based aerobics class, you'll find many of the moves in a water-based class to be similar. A typical one-hour class will begin with warm-up stretching and low-level movement, progress to large muscle workouts like knee lifts, jumping, jogging and upper-body resistance exercises, then end with a brief cool-down.
Still skeptical? Consider this: Water offers 12 times as much resistance as air. So, the same stretching and jogging you do on land will take more effort, but result in less joint wear and tear in the pool.
In addition, land-based aerobics often neglect to fully tone the upper body unless weights are incorporated, because most of the work is done by leg and gluteus muscles. In the pool, an activity as simple as walking briskly and swinging your arms in a full arc will make both lower and upper-body muscles sit up and take notice. Why?
"Water weighs eight pounds per gallon," Murphy said, "and you've got resistance from all directions."
Don't be fooled. Though you stay cool during a workout, you are burning calories. Water aerobics is classified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a "moderately vigorous activity" that is roughly equivalent in its Metabolic Equivalent/MET (calorie-burning unit of measurement) level to riding a bicycle, climbing stairs, playing volleyball or dancing.
Water aerobics also can be a fun way to improve your fitness. Just ask the participants of Tralaine Benefiel's YMCA Water Works class. The pool was full of smiling, bobbing and stretching adults one recent morning. Though the class was predominantly female, men are welcome, and some were in attendance.
Benefiel leads the class from the edge of the pool, demonstrating all of the exercises she directs her students to do. The workout, similar to land aerobics, is accompanied by music. By the end of the class, Benefiel is drenched in sweat.
"Feeling strong, Diana?" she calls during one workout, then later, "Power it up!" This elicits an enthusiastic "Woo, hoo!" from the class.
Teresa Lang has attended Benefiel's class for five years "just to feel better." In addition to her improved well-being, she says her endurance has also increased as a result of working out in a pool. Many of the class attendees report choosing water fitness due to problems or pain in knees, ankles or other joints, or because of injuries that prevent them from doing land-based workouts.
"Let's grab our toys!" Benefiel calls, and the group begins doing abdominal crunches with the aid of Styrofoam barbells that double as floats.
Lucille Hahn, who has been in Benefiel's group since January and who stays for another class immediately following, says, "I have a flat stomach now. I never had that before."
At the end of the class, 15-year water fitness veteran Anita Stover summed up the improvement the workout makes in her quality of life: "I have less pain when I exercise."
Water fitness classes vary in format, and in how strenuous the level of cardio or toning that takes place. Benefiel acknowledges that there is a common perception that water fitness classes are less challenging than land-based aerobics classes. As an accomplished athlete and veteran of 12 marathons, she disagrees.
"It's great for cross-training," Benefiel said. "If I can get someone to try it, they see."
Jason Bina, a physical therapist for Via Christi Therapy as well as a certified athletic trainer, is well acquainted with the benefits that can be gained by water exercise or water therapy. Pain, particularly back pain, can hinder someone's ability to work out or do therapeutic exercises.
"If they hurt no matter what they do," Bina said, "they're much better served with water as a medium."
Get all wet
Water or aqua aerobics classes are offered through Genesis Health Clubs and most Wichita YMCA locations. Classes are usually free with a membership.
If you're a student or employee of Wichita State University, aqua aerobics classes are available with a Heskett Center membership.
If a health club membership or class fee doesn't fit into your budget, you can easily perform your own fitness workout. The Mayo Clinic has a tutorial that will enable you to get the benefits of a water workout in any public or private pool, without the additional cost of paying an instructor. Go to mayoclinic.com and search for "water exercise."
As with any new physical activity, check with your doctor if you have any condition that might prevent you from benefiting from water exercise.