We all know about the importance of regular exercise. We also know that physical activity becomes more difficult with age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis. Exercise can also be tricky when recovering from injury or joint replacement; following a stroke or heart attack; or even during pregnancy. Instead of throwing in the towel, take your towel to the pool!
“Water aerobics continues to become one of the most popular forms of group exercise that I instruct during the spring and summer months,” says John Sammartano, who leads year-round aquatics exercise classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Leisure Square, a pool and sports facility operated by the City of Vero Beach Recreation Department. “On sunny days, it’s common to have 40 to 50 people working out and having fun together.”
That was indeed the case on a recent Wednesday morning, as nearly 50 enthusiastic women and men bobbed and moved to “Splish Splash,” “Sherry Baby,” “Please Mister
Postman,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and other popular oldies in the heated Olympic-size pool.
“Since the water provides a three-dimensional environment, just about all the exercises we perform allow joints to freely move in all directions while experiencing light resistance,” Sammartano points out. “Traditional land-based exercises have the force of gravity to account for; but in the pool, joints can move within their complete range of motion.
“The buoyancy of water also allows very low to no impact on ankles, knees, hips, and the lower back, which makes exercises like jumping jacks, jogging, squats, and lunges doable for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do them. For people with limiting physical conditions, the water really is the best environment for them to get some aerobic exercise.”
“This class has kept me alive,” reports 81-year-old Elaine Matthews, following a one-hour session at Leisure Square. “I was back in the pool two months after open-heart surgery,” says the former Indian River County school health coordinator, who has been an aquatic exercise devotee for 22 years. “It’s good for the mind and body and never gets boring.”
“I had major back surgery 11 years ago, and this was the best class for getting me back in shape,” says 76-year-old Patty Dennison. “It’s low impact on my joints, and the balance exercises are good for preventing falls.”
John Boshart, 78, says the aqua class has been a big part of his rehabilitation after suffering a stroke last fall. He went from having to use the hydraulic chair just to get into the water to significantly improving his mobility, endurance, and energy level, according to his wife, Melissa.
“John’s not only entertaining, but he’s also cognizant of our physical issues and limitations,” comments 74-year-old Linda Gutheit, referring to Sammartano, who holds certifications in personal training, water fitness training, exercise therapy, and fitness training for older adults. “About two years ago, the water workouts became my alternative to walking and running in the summer months. Now, I’m hooked and I’m here three days a week all year round.”
“I’ve been taking these classes since John started teaching here 15 years ago,” remarks Nancy West. So many other people are running to doctors and we’re not. We enjoy doing it every day to see friends and stay fit together.”
According to the American Council on Exercise, a water workout is less likely to result in injury or sore muscles because the water’s buoyancy reduces a person’s body weight by 50 to 90% (depending upon the water depth), which means less stress on weight-bearing joints, bones, and muscles. That fact shouldn’t suggest, however, that exercising in a pool is less of a workout than exercising on terra firma. Studies confirm that aquatic exercise incorporates the main pillars of fitness—cardiovascular function, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility—and even offers some advantages over land-based exercise.
The buoyancy, warmth, and hydrostatic pressure of water dilates blood vessels, improves blood circulation, lowers the pulse and blood pressure, and helps blood flow more efficiently throughout the body. This means that you can expend more energy during water versus land exercise while putting less stress on your heart. Experts advise paying attention to how you feel. Your lowered resting pulse may prompt you to believe you are working at a lower intensity when you are actually exercising quite strenuously!
Can water aerobics make you stronger? Absolutely! The natural viscosity of water adds resistance, which makes it the perfect medium for strength training. Most classes offer various sizes of handheld weights to increase the level of resistance and degree of muscle activation.
There is even evidence that aquatic exercise positively influences bone density. Movement in water places demands on the skeletal system and load on bones. When light impact is added from the bottom of the pool, as during running or jumping jacks, the load on the bones is increased and adds to their strength.
One of the greatest advantages of water-based exercise is its ability to improve flexibility. Warm water is conducive to stretching muscles, reducing stiffness and pain, and moving joints through a wider range of motion.
Fitness benefits aside, many people might assume that fewer calories are burned during aquatic exercise because the water’s buoyancy lowers weight-bearing capacity. Research indicates otherwise. Just as on land, multiple factors impact the amount of energy expended and calories burned. These include water depth, which affects the amount of resistance in the water; the speed of a person’s movement in the water; the amount of force applied against the water’s resistance (such as with dumbbells or weight belts); and water and air temperatures. Considering these variables, it is estimated that a person burns 400 to 500 calories in a typical one-hour vertical water exercise class. You may not feel it, but you can work up a sweat in the pool!
“During season, we offer eight classes a week,” says Pam Stone, a fitness and water aerobics instructor at John’s Island Club, who taught water aerobics alongside Olympic swimmers at the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. “Attendance ranges from 10 to 25 people and might include visiting grandkids along with members of all ages. Following the pandemic, many people wanted to return to their regular exercise routines, and water aerobics has been an especially safe haven. It’s outdoors with the beautiful Atlantic Ocean right in front of us, and it provides a highly challenging workout along with opportunity for socially distanced socializing.”
“Some people call this the ‘Bob and Babble’ Class,” laughs 81-year-old Alice Bahrenburg during a recent water aerobics session at John’s Island Beach Club, “but it’s not as easy as it looks. I always use the heavy dumbbells and have a great workout.”
Like many of the women in her class, Bahrenburg has worked at staying in shape throughout her life. When golf, tennis, running, and hiking eventually took a toll on her knees, she turned to water aerobics. “It allows me to get all the exercise I would get in the gym in the pool, except nothing hurts in the pool. I can move pain-free.”
“Water aerobics has been a saving grace since I had my hips and knee replaced. I can do things in the water that I can’t do on land,” says 70-year-old Susan van der Stricht, crediting years of aqua exercise with her improved bone density score.
Many varieties of aquatic exercise classes can be found at community centers, clubs, and gyms throughout Vero Beach. Vero Fitness currently offers five unique classes Monday through Friday: Aqua Zumba, Aquacise, Aqua HIIT, Aqua Tabata, and Aqua Flow. A sixth class may be added, according to Group Fitness Director Shanna Benson.
“There is a strong demand for our aquatic classes,” says Benson, who has been teaching and overseeing group exercise at Vero Fitness for four years. “Exercising in the water works your muscles differently than exercise on land or by machine, greatly compounding their ability to stabilize your joints. Every move that I do in the pool I practice first in the pool and then on land to demonstrate how best to present it. Aquatic exercise has been great for me personally, and now it’s gratifying to see what it does for other people.”
“Following a complex injury and surgery, I could not walk without assistance for two years,” says Ruth Rexford. “I did my recovery in the water, and I’ve been coming to class five days a week ever since.” As a result, the 67-year-old says she went from being wheelchair bound to walking several miles a day.
“Quality instruction makes a difference,” points out 72-year-old Barbara McLam, who attends classes with her husband. “Shanna walks us through every part of our body and explains the purpose behind each exercise so that we are engaged the entire time. My husband is trying to avoid hip surgery, and this class opens his hips, enabling him to walk much better.
“This is preventive care,” McLam says. “We have longevity in our family, and we want to enjoy life.”
Benefits of Aquatic Exercise
Muscle strength and endurance
Balance and coordination
Joint mobility and range of motion
Recovery from injury and surgery
Resting heart rate
Risk of falls
Pregnancy-related swelling, spinal compression, and pain
Ready to Take the Plunge?
Before you dip your toe into the water, preview an aquatic exercise class at a gym or club near you. Ask about the instructor’s qualifications and the pool’s safety measures. The instructor should be certified and have special training in aquatic exercise. A lifeguard should be on hand in case of emergency. Bring a hat, sunglasses, and water; and don’t forget the sunscreen and/or a UV-protective shirt!