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Get Fit and Feel Refreshed with Water Aerobics

Hop in the pool for an invigorating, joint-friendly workout
Written by 
Shawnee Barnes
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
December 18, 2013

Although water aerobics delivers heavy-duty health and body benefits—burning calories, toning your muscles and strengthening your heart, to name just a few—you’ll feel light and stable while putting very little stress on your joints in a pool, because you lessen gravity’s force on your body when you’re in water. Plus, water provides about 12 times the resistance of air, making water aerobics an extra-effective way to strengthen muscles.

Water aerobics classes combine walking, jogging, dance moves and calisthenics, and are a lot like aerobics classes you take on dry land (right down to the motivating and fun music). In fact, don’t be surprised if the moves seem familiar—some classes are in-the-water versions of popular gym classes, like Zumba. In addition to water aerobics, there are other forms of exercise you can do in a pool, such as water walking and running, Burdenko exercises and others.

They can take place in indoor or outdoor pools, and most are conducted in shallow depths, though some venture into the deep end to up the intensity of the workout.

Who Water Aerobics Is Good For

Water aerobics is suitable for people of all ages and sizes, and many say they love it because they can exercise while staying cool and refreshed.

It may be especially appealing to those who are older, overweight, pregnant or have joint problems, such as arthritis or back pain. Chest deep water eliminates about 80 percent of your dry land body weight, which allows you to move more easily and reduces the impact on your body. Even low-impact moves like stretching become gentler in water.

For athletes, water aerobics can be a valuable part of a training regimen because it provides a gentle cross-training option in between high-impact land-based workouts. (It’s also a great way to mix up workouts to prevent mental burn-out.) Pool workouts can be particularly helpful if you’re rehabbing an injury because they allow you to keep your fitness without slowing down your recovery—just be sure to check with your doctor before giving them a go.

How to Get Started

Check with community or private pools in your area to find a water aerobics class taught by someone certified in water exercise and who has CPR training. (Certification agencies include the Burdenko Institute and the Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute.) Different instructors have different styles, so ask about the class’s format and if you can attend a trial to see if it’s a fit for you. A good session will include a warm-up and cool-down as well as exercises that strengthen your balance, coordination and flexibility.

Be prepared for your instructor to incorporate the use of equipment during your class. Some use noodles or foam weights to work your upper body while you jump or do lunges with your legs, for example. When you are floating motionless in the water in a vertical upright position your shoulders should be one to three inches out of the water.  If you are too low in the water or would simply feel more comfortable using a flotation device during class, just ask for one—they are usually available.

Here are some tips to make your pool workout more enjoyable:

  • Come Prepared You may be surrounded by water, but you’re still sweating and dehydrating your body. Keep a water bottle on the deck and sip every 10 to 15 minutes. If you’re working out in an outdoor pool, don’t forget to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before getting wet and consider wearing a hat and sunglasses to protect your face.
  • Monitor How You Feel Although it is lower-impact than land-based workouts, water aerobics is still a challenging activity. Use your perceived exertion—how hard you’re breathing, how your muscles feel—to gauge your effort in the water. It’s OK to take a break if you need to catch your breath or rest.
  • Adjust the Intensity For a more challenging session, go to deeper water or create more drag (resistance in the water) by cupping your hands as you move your arms. To make your workout easier, keep your fingers together and turn your hands so that they are slicing through the water like a knife. You can also bend your arms to reduce resistance.
  • Dress for Comfort If the thought of getting into a bathing suit makes you anxious, wear shorts and a swim T-shirt. And remember that everyone is there for the same reasons—to get a great workout, improve their health and have fun. You’re likely to meet kindred spirits. 
  • Look for Warmer Water The ideal temperature for rehabilitative exercise in water is 90 to 93 degrees. If the water is cooler than 88 degrees it is difficult for most people to stay warm, which is critical to being able to move muscles in an easy, free manner. If you’re looking for a higher intensity water class, water temperatures can be a little lower, perhaps in the 82- to 88-degree range.
American Council on Exercise
Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute
About the author 
Shawnee Barnes is a teacher and freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, New York. She writes about a variety of topics, including health and wellness.