With an ever-aging baby boomer population wanting to stay more physically active, water seems like the most logical choice to reduce stress on the joints and improve overall fitness. However, the aquatic environment still has the stigma that the pool is a place where old ladies in flowered bathing caps jump up and down with a noodle. It is clear how this may deter some women but especially men to look to the pool for a more aggressive workout.
The water allows for a much different training experience than most are accustomed to. Water can be up to 800 times more supportive than air but up to 15 times more resistant to any movement. The water is a three-dimensional, isokinetic environment (same resistance in every direction), which cannot be reproduced in any gym. The water is the great equalizer — the harder you push in the water, the harder the water pushes back. With land-based training we tend to rely on gravity and momentum. However, when the body enters the water, both of these are significantly reduced and the body has to respond very differently. This is a great way to challenge the body, break through a plateau and balance dysfunctional movement patterns shown to significantly affect performance.
There are numerous fitness classes out there for almost any interest, age or ability level. Land based exercise programs have been adapted for the aquatic environment to help increase participation in the pool. Programs such as Aqua Zumba, spinning, boxing, boot camps, Aqua-pole and suspension training, among others, are continually being developed. These programs are great to keep the participant moving for a cardio workout and tend to create a fun, social and stimulating environment.
Based on my 25 years of experience specializing in aquatics, I have worked with clients of all levels and disabilities, from spinal cord injuries and severe neurological disease/disorders up to professional and world-class athletes. I believe the pool should be functional as well as fun. Because of the water's surrounding environment it creates a much more functional approach to exercise. The body has three planes of motion. Even though we move usually in one plane of motion at a time (i.e. forward/backward), we have to have stability in the other two planes. Water provides this inherently so the muscular and neurological systems receive a more comprehensive training effect.
As aquatics professionals, we need to develop quality and scientifically based programs based on the latest research. More people should be aware that the pool can be the new gym in a world demanding increased efficiency. In the past few years, there has been promising aquatic research coming from the strength and conditioning and sports worlds. Several studies show that the water can be a fantastic training environment to challenge any fitness level, even Olympic and professional athletes. Strength training in the water was once thought impossible but, over the past few years, studies show that if used with the correct pace, equipment and effort, noticeable strength gains can be achieved.
Flexibility can be enhanced by using the water properties and research has shown gains in lower body flexibility after participating in aquatic fitness programs. Power training, especially jump training (Plyometrics), in the water has been extensively studied and the results show very similar results to land-based training but without the added muscle soreness associated with land training. This author has performed research in the area of shallow water sprinting compared to land-based sprinting. The results showed subjectively that the participants reported a much harder workout in the water with much less muscle soreness.
When developing an aquatic fitness program at your facility, do not be afraid to think outside of the box. This will attract a new clientele that previously would not have considered using your pool. As long as you are familiar with the research, then you can design programs for any population or fitness level. Do not shy away from challenging people no matter how old they are, whether they are an athlete or a Geri-athlete. Remember, the water is the great equalizer. Have fun, but be functional and purposeful.