With summer just around the corner, a seasonal array of exercise opportunities are available to shake up your exercise routine. One way to dive into summer is by diving into the water itself. Anyone can benefit from aquatic exercise, also known as water-based exercise (WBE), because it is so versatile; there are numerous ways to get a well-rounded workout.1 In this article, we discuss the three main types of WBE, how aquatic exercise engages the body, and the unique benefits of these workouts.
TYPES OF AQUATIC EXERCISE
The three main types of WBE—swimming, shallow-water aquatic training, and deep-water aquatic training—fall under the same umbrella of aquatic exercise.2 The American College of Sports Medicine defines aquatic exercise as structured physical activity that “is done in a body of water, such as a pool, lake, or the ocean.”3
Swimming. The first type of aquatic exercise is swimming. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on lap swimming and exclude recreational and leisure swimming. Lap swimming can be done consistently or with short breaks at the end of each lap.4 This WBE focuses on consistent, repeated movement and strength training.
Shallow-water training. The second type of aquatic exercise is shallow-water training. This WBE is typically performed in a depth of four to five feet or when the water reaches the middle of the ribcage or chest.2 This provides the benefits of reduced impact and grounding forces, which allows for proper body alignment and movement control. One of the main types of shallow-water training is water aerobics. This WBE focuses on muscle toning, flexibility, and coordination.
Deep-water training. The third type of aquatic exercise is deep-water training. This WBE is performed suspended in a depth that allows the body to remain suspended in the water while not touching the bottom of the pool.2 Deep-water training may include use of flotation equipment, such as a swim belt or pool noodle, to help maintain proper body alignment. Water aerobics and aqua jogging are two popular types of deep-water training. This WBE focuses on muscle toning, endurance, and coordination.
A FULL BODY STRENGTH WORKOUT
Aquatic exercise is a full body workout. From swimming laps to treading water, WBE allows the body to work smarter rather than just harder. This is largely due to resistance—experts estimate that water is 800 times as dense as air.5,6 Additionally, WBE targets many areas of the body, from the head to the toes.
Arms. The arms are one of the primary muscle groups that allow the body to move through the water. From the fingertips to the shoulders, nearly the entire arm fights water resistance.7 By forming an anchor point with the arm, the body can propel itself forward by pushing or pulling water. Most people only use their hands (with their fingers together and curved inward) as an anchor point, but engaging the forearms and upper arms can create a more powerful movement. Whether swimming or pushing buoyant exercise equipment under the surface, the arms will be fully engaged.
Back. If you press your hands into your back behind your ribcage, you can feel the latissimus dorsi, more commonly known as lats. This triangular, flat muscle—the largest muscle in the upper part of the body—fights water resistance by supporting, extending, and rotating the shoulders and arms.8
Core. Because the water keeps the body buoyant, WBE requires a certain level of control the body’s midsection. This activates and engages the deeper muscles in the core, which consist of abdominal muscles, obliques, diaphragm, pelvic floor, trunk extensors, and hip flexors.9,10 Any time the body is moving itself through the water, even if it’s just treading water, the core is engaged.
Quads. While the legs are a heavy part of the body, they are also the most powerful. Aquatic exercise often involves kicking the legs to move through the water, and a strong kick requires strong quads and hip muscles.7 These muscles are strengthened through the whipping action of the legs to stay afloat and underwater exercises, such as leg raises and curls.
Ankles and calves. Similar to the quads, WBE increases ankle and calf strength. Those muscles contract each time you push off the wall or from the bottom of the pool.7 Isolating these areas using pool fins or a buoyancy bar can target these small but important muscles.
BENEFITS OF AQUATIC EXERCISE
Good form of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Most WBE activities address two areas of conditioning: aerobic and anaerobic exercise.7 Put simply, aerobic exercise builds endurance by increasing heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time, while anaerobic exercise involves short bursts of intense activity.11-13 For example, swimming laps at a consistent speed for an extended period of time is an aerobic exercise, while swimming as fast as you can for a finite amount of time (e.g., 10 seconds) is considered anaerobic. Participating in these two types of conditioning allows the body to balance burning calories and building muscle mass.14,15 Engaging in aerobic and anaerobic exercise can also keep your workouts fresh and exciting.
Improves heart and lung function. Both aerobic and anaerobic exercises have unique and cumulative positive effects on cardiovascular health.16 The heart rate and breathing naturally increase during exercise because the body needs more oxygen.15 The heart works hard to pump oxygenated blood to other parts of the body, which strengthens muscles around this organ.17-19 And because you are forced to modulate your breathing when your head goes under water during WBE, the lungs become more efficient at meeting the body’s demands for more oxygen, which can even result in structural changes, such as increased lung capacity, over time.15
Low impact on joints. In many cases, WBE can be a complementary part of a treatment regimen for pain.3,7,9,20,21 People with chronic pain, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or fibromyalgia, or those seeking to rehabilitate an injury make excellent candidates for aquatic exercise. The buoyancy of the water provides a non- or very-low-impact environment for exercise by preventing significant stress on joints or injured areas. In addition to temporarily providing pain relief, WBE provides an opportunity for people to build muscle via water resistance.22,23 The buoyancy also helps distributes body weight more equally, allowing a broader range of motion and more loose, flexible joints and ligaments, which can prevent further damage while improving mobility, posture, and muscle coordination.24
Boosts psychological well-being. If exposure to visible outdoor bodies of water can benefit a person’s mental health, imagine the effect of diving into it.25 Research resoundingly supports the hypothesis that the therapeutic effects of water exposure alongside the therapeutic benefits of exercise establishes WBE as an effective mental health intervention.1 According to a 2022 review published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, numerous studies have shown that aquatic exercise, especially water aerobics, can ease the symptoms of certain mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD.1,27-31 More generally, WBE can alleviate mental stress.1,17,32-34 It does this in several ways, including providing a sense of community, boosting endorphins, and improving focus.
Whether you’re in the pool or open water, WBE is just one way to make a splash this summer. Aquatic exercise is versatile, offering various workouts in a variety of settings, levels of intensity, and programs for all ages and abilities. The three widely accepted types of WBE—swimming, shallow-water training, and deep-water training—engage nearly all areas of the body with a focus on strength, endurance, power, and flexibility. The health benefits of aquatic exercise are equally diverse, ranging from psychological to physiological, and can cater to each individual’s specific needs. If you’re looking for a way to cool off this summer, take a deep breath and hop into the water! You never know what you’ll find under the surface.
- Jackson M, Kang M, Furness J, Kemp-Smith K. Aquatic exercise and mental health: a scoping review. Complement Ther Med. 2022;66:102820.
- Aquatic Exercise Association website. Aquatic fitness programming: standards and guidelines. 2021. https://aeawave.org/Portals/0/AEA_Cert_Docs/AEA_Standards_Guidlines_2020.pdf?ver=2019-12-18-131623-417%C3%97tamp=1576696862726. Accessed 24 May 2022.
- Riebe D, Ehrman JK, Liguori G, Magal M. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, Tenth Edition. Philadelphia (Pennsylvania): Wolters Kluwer Health; 2018.
- Godman H. Simplify your workout with lap swimming. 1 Jul 2012. Harvard Health Publishing website. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/simplify-your-workout-with-lap-swimming-2019070117254. Accessed 25 May 2022.
- Institute Of Physics. Scientists discover air is heavier than we thought. 25 Nov 2004. ScienceDaily website. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041123112014.htm. Accessed 24 May 2022.
- Kravitz L, Mayo JJ .The physiological effects of aquatic exercise. University of New Mexico website. https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/aqua.html. Accessed 24 May 2022.
- USA Swimming website. A total body workout: the health benefits of swimming. 30 May 2019. https://www.usaswimming.org/news/2019/05/30/a-total-body-workout-the-health-benefits-of-swimming.
- Cleveland Clinic website. Back Muscles. 23 Jul 2021. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21632-back-muscles. Accessed 25 May 2022.
- Husney A, Rigg J. 2 Water exercise. Mar 2020. Kaiser Permanente website. https://wa.kaiserpermanente.org/kbase/topic.jhtml?docId=abk7571. Accessed 24 May 2022.
- Edwards T. A comprehensive guide to engaging your core. 15 Feb 2022. Healthline website. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-engage-your-core. Accessed 25 May 2022.
- Patel H, Alkhawam H, Madanieh R, et al. Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World J Cardiol. 2017;9(2):
- Bubnis D. What is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise? 3 Jun 2020. MedicalNewsToday website. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/aerobic-vs-anaerobic-exercises#:~:text=Summary-,Aerobic%20exercises%20are%20endurance%2Dtype%20exercises%20that%20increase%20a%20person’s,also%20provide%20mental%20health%20benefits. Accessed 26 May 2022.
- Sachdev P. Difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. 22 Jun 2021. WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/difference-between-aerobic-and-anaerobic-exercise#091e9c5e8217278a-1-3. Accessed 26 May 2022.
- Helmer J. Water aerobics. 23 Nov 2020. JumpStart by WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/a-z/water-aerobics. Accessed 24 May 2022.
- 2 Mar 2021. Boost your lung health with swimming. Northwestern Medicine website. https://www.nmhfc.com/blog/boost-your-lung-health/?doing_wp_cron=1653584721.5052330493927001953125. Accessed 26 May 2022.
- Reynolds G. The heart of a swimmer vs. the heart of a runner. Updated 3 Apr 2019. New York Times website. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/well/move/heart-health-swimming-running-exercise.html. Accessed 26 May 2022.
- Currie KD, Coates AM, Slysz JT, et al. Left ventricular structure and function in elite swimmers and runners. Front Physiol. 2018;9:1700.
- Patel H, Alkhawam H, Madanieh R, Shah N, Kosmas CE, Vittorio TJ. Aerobic vs anaerobic exercise training effects on the cardiovascular system. World J Cardiol. 2017;9(2):134-138.
- Lazar JM, Khanna N, Chesler R, Salciccioli L. Swimming and the heart. Int J Cardiol. 2013;168(1):19-26.
- Zamunér AR, Andrade CP, Arca EA, Avila MA. Impact of water therapy on pain management in patients with fibromyalgia: current perspectives. J Pain Res. 2019;12:1971-2007.
- Buckthorpe M, Pirotti E, Villa FD. Benefits and use of aquatic therapy during rehabilitation after ACL reconstruction – a clinical commentary. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2019;14(6):978-993.
- Pereira Neiva H, Brandão Faíl L, Izquierdo M, et al. The effect of 12 weeks of water-aerobics on health status and physical fitness: an ecological approach. PLoS One. 2018;13(5):e0198319.
- Davis JL. Water exercise for fibromyalgia: easing deep muscle pain. 10 Nov 2010. WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/features/water-exercise-for-fibromyalgia-easing-deep-muscle-pain. Accessed 26 May 2022.
- Wang TJ, Belza B, Thompson F, et al. Effects of aquatic exercise on flexibility, strength and aerobic fitness in adults with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee. J Adv Nurs. 2007;57(2):141-152.
- Britton E, Kindermann G, Domegan C, Carlin C. Blue care: a systematic review of blue space interventions for health and wellbeing. Health Promotion International. 2020;35(1):50–69.
- Kim IM, Kim SJ, Park HR, et al. The long-term effect of aquarobics exercise program on physical function and mental health in elderly women. Indian J Sci Technol. 2015;8(26);1-12.
- Silva LAD, Tortelli L, Motta J, et al. Effects of aquatic exercise on mental health, functional autonomy and oxidative stress in depressed elderly individuals: a randomized clinical trial. Clinics. 2019;(74).
- Silva LAD, Doyenart R, Henrique Salvan P, et al. Swimming training improves mental health parameters, cognition and motor coordination in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Int J Environ Health Res. 2020;30(5):584-592.
- Neville C, Henwood T, Beattie E, Fielding E. Exploring the effect of aquatic exercise on behaviour and psychological well-being in people with moderate to severe dementia: a pilot study of the Watermemories Swimming Club. Australas J Ageing. 2014;33(2):
- Driver S, Rees K, O’Connor J, Lox C. Aquatics, health-promoting self-care behaviours and adults with brain injuries. Brain Inj. 2006;20(2):133-141.
- Stathopoulou G, Powers MB, Berry AC, et al. Exercise interventions for mental health: a quantitative and qualitative review. Clin Psychol: Sci Pract. 2006;13(2):179-193
- Berger BG, Owen DR. Stress reduction and mood enhancement in four exercise modes: swimming, body conditioning, hatha yoga, and fencing. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1988;59(2):148-159
- United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Health benefits of swimming. 18 Feb 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/swimmers/health_benefits_water_exercise.html#ten. Accessed 26 May 2022.
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