It’s time to get WET! Building strength in the pool

Aqua aerobics has been around a long time, and initially attracted a mainly female demographic enjoying lots of laughter and community connectedness. While swimwear has changed over time, it’s sun hats, sunscreen and designer rash shirts which dot the pool landscape these days. Thankfully, the laughter and community connectedness has remained, and aqua fitness classes

now attract a much wider demographic. These days you could be sharing the water with an elite athlete training for fitness, a new mum looking to shed the post baby fat or anyone looking to add variety to their own fitness program. And the men have caught on with what women have known all along – that aqua fitness is seriously on-trend and you don’t have to be a “swimmer” to enjoy the benefits. Exercising in the water is also brilliant for prehab (before surgery) and rehab (post-surgery).

As a registered and experienced personal trainer and group fitness instructor who specialises in the Over 50s, my aqua fitness classes are where I see the most rapid improvement in mobility and functionality with my clients. Water makes you brave to push the body a little further without pain, mainly due to the resistance of the water cocooning the body. A bit like a water hug really.  I’ve observed very little DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in clients, and there is absolutely no age barrier as long as you can get in and out of the pool. If you are unable to swing a leg up a ladder, then look for a pool that has a walk-in entry. Another hidden advantage is the improvement in your balance due to the movement of water around you created by others in a shallow water class. However, this doesn’t apply to Deep Water Running/Fitness classes, due to the depth of the water.

If like me you’re not a big fan of the noisy gyms and you love the water, then you’re going to love the research around aqua fitness classes, because if done correctly, you’ll get your strength training, aerobic training and balance training done and dusted in the one class. There’s heaps of data out there so let me give you a brief overview to save you trolling through it all.

There is much evidence out there for the positive effects of regular exercise including muscular strength, flexibility, mobility and aerobic training in older adults. It’s great for our physical health and mental wellbeing. Research tells us that shallow water exercise (my preference is for top of the rib cage/mid-chest depth water) is a great exercise regime for older adults especially for those with joint issues, balance problems and other limitations. Without getting bogged down in the scientific jargon, researchers have found the value of isometric strength as it relates to functional independence.  Isometric strength is around carrying the groceries, maintaining posture and dynamic stability. Use it or lose it Baby!

Here’s some interesting statistics from a study I found in the Journal and Conditioning Research (2006) and I believe is still applicable today.

  • Hand grip (a strong predictor of disability in older adults with grip strength typically decreasing by 20-25% by age 60) improved by 13%.
  • Dynamic strength (tested against knee extension, leg press, chest press and lateral pull-downs in the gym) saw knee extension increased by 25.7%, leg press increased 29.5%, chest press increased 25.7%.  However, there was no improvement in the latissimus dorsi strength because the buoyant forces of the water support the body therefore reducing the involvement of the back muscles to maintain alignment in the water.
  • An increase of 24.6% in lower extremity power also helped in the Get-up-and-Go test (getting out of a chair and walking away) which saw a 20% improvement.
  • And to top it all off, there was a 3.4% increase in lean muscle and an 11% increase in flexibility.

So now that I’ve dazzled you with the statistics, let’s look at the practicalities of including water exercise in your training program.

  • BEFORE commencing any exercise regime, get the OK from your health practitioner especially if you have an injury or chronic health condition. One of my clients has a chronic health condition and she blitzed her most recent medical tests which is attributed to her commitment to water-based training in the summer and a weekly land-based exercise class in the winter. She’s also a keen golfer so she has all bases covered. And I just love her mindset around staying healthy.
  • Decide if shallow water or deep-water aqua classes (or both) is best for you. Shallow water is great for getting the heart rate up and really ramping up your fitness quickly if you work hard. Burn those calories Baby!  If you have back, hip, feet or knee issues, deep water classes may be the better option as you are suspended off the pool floor by a buoyancy belt so your joints are more protected. Deep water is a fantastic workout and uses a lot of the core muscles to get the body moving. You’ll be sleeping like a well-behaved baby after either type of class I promise.
  • Look for classes that are fun and you feel connected with the participants and the Instructor otherwise you won’t stay committed to attending the classes. Sit on the deck and observe a class if you’re not sure. I always have music to move to in my classes, appropriate to the age demographic. If you’re into head thumping heavy metal music, then an Over 50s class might be stretching it a bit.
  • Find an Instructor that will support and encourage you to work at your own pace, especially in the early weeks. If you have hearing challenges, look for an Instructor that gives visual instruction as well as verbal. Instructing over water can distort the instructors voice so having the visuals is very helpful.
  • Worried about your wobbly bits? Don’t be. We all have them and for the extra shy, I suggest a pair of Lycra shorts under the swimmers to increase the intrigue factor!
  • If the pool is outdoors, then slip, slap and slop plus hydration. You might be exercising in the water, but you still need to hydrate during class. And no peeing in the pool please! That’s what toilets are for.
  • If you’re hitting the pool for an early morning class, don’t overload your belly with a full English breakfast beforehand but do have something to eat at least an hour prior to the class. A banana and nuts or a light healthy cereal should do it. For a night class, same deal but probably ramp it up a bit for a deep-water class. Any protein is good an hour or two before class. Just don’t do the three-course dinner and wine as the reflux is going to taste awful on the way back up. And while we’re talking about alcohol – Don’t!! It will still be there when you get home.
  • Skin hydration is essential. Highly chlorinated public pools are a necessity so have a shower as soon as possible after leaving the pool and have the body moisturiser handy. I’ve been known to take my aqua weights down to Little Cove at Noosa when it’s calm. It will impress the other swimmers no end I promise. And I’ll take saltwater over chlorinated water anytime but it’s a bit hard to come by here in Brisbane. If you see me down there, come and say hello (but don’t be creepy about it).

So now you have the facts, it’s up to you to make the effort. Get Wet, Get Fit. But most of all, ENJOY.

Ruth Reinhard is an Active Ageing and Results Coach & Speaker based in Brisbane, Australia. She is also the founder and owner of Health thru Fitness, a boutique fitness business catering for the 50+ community. She’s passionate about providing a fun and respectful space for her clients to exercise safely and within their own capabilities. Ruth loves to educate and motivate her Over 50s community to keep moving.  #thinkboldnotold

©Ruth Reinhard 2019