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Taking it to the Water: An Aquatic Exercise Primer

You’ve probably heard this before: When it comes to getting a low-impact, full body workout there’s almost no better choice than swimming. Whether you grab a kickboard and paddle your way up and down the lane or swim a gentle breaststroke for a few laps, you’ll get a terrific workout, without sweating a single drop. Water’s resistance makes your body work harder, which means 30 minutes in exercising the pool is about the same as 45 minutes exercising on land.

There’s no better time to begin a swimming or water workout practice than summer in Oklahoma, if you ask us. Lovely, cool water means zero-sweat exercise. Of course, swimming laps is the obvious water workout, but plenty of us are non-swimmers. Plenty more of us don’t love the repetitive part of a lap swim (although many find it meditative). Turns out there are plenty of other ways to exercise in the water, and we’ll share a few with you here. Fun fact: even though you won’t work up a sweat, you’ll still want to hydrate before, during and after your aquatic exercise sesh.   

Swimming is an amazing cardio workout, it’s known for its calming, meditative effects and it’s a remarkably efficient way to burn calories. Since water supports about 90 percent of your body weight when you’re swimming, it’s often possible to continue to exercise while recovering from an ankle sprain or other injury.

Did you know, though, that there are lots of other ways to exercise in water? It’s true. But before we explore those, let’s talk about the benefits of being around (or in) water. Although we humans are land dwellers, there’s a distinct connection between us and water. It’s got a calming effect, whether we are floating in a boat, lying next to it on a beach or at a pool, soaking our feet or submerged.

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols’ book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do,” a massively long-titled best-seller, is focused on the scientifically proven evidence that being near (or in) bodies of water promotes all sorts of good things in people.  

In an interview with USA Today, Nichols explains the idea of the ‘blue mind:’ “The term ‘blue mind’ describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on or under water. It’s the antidote to what we refer to as “red mind,” which is the anxious, over-connected and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life. Research has proven that spending time near the water is essential to achieving an elevated and sustained happiness.”

We like the idea of elevated and sustained happiness! Here are some ways to add a little splash to your exercise plan:

Aqua jogging. Also called ‘pool running,’ aqua jogging involves strapping a flotation device around your midsection, hopping into the deep end of a pool and jogging. Your feet don’t touch the bottom of the pool, so there’s zero impact. Land runners recovering from injury use pool running as a way to stay in shape as they heal. It’s safe to do even if you’ve got a stress fracture. Caveat: hip flexor injuries may not fare well and could even worsen, thanks to the increased resistance of the water. Aqua jogging is great for non-runners, too, offering a terrific cardio workout.

The technique: keep your upper body nice and straight, without leaning too far forward. Try to remain upright. If you are a land runner, this may feel funny because it’s a slightly different posture than normal. Now, here’s the part that will make more sense once you’re in the water: you will only do the back half of the running motion. So if you can see your feet, you’ll want to adjust. One knee will lift while the rear foot makes a compact back lick, driving down and back. Arms will move as they do on land.

Treading water. You can burn 11 calories per minute by simply treading water, while also strengthening muscles and boosting cardiovascular health. Treading water increases flexibility and can help increase range of motion. Water’s buoyancy means you get a challenging workout that’s safe for people with musculoskeletal or neuromuscular disorders.

The technique: Treading water involves your arms, legs and core. The arm movement, called sculling, sweeping arms back and forth, palms tilted away from the body on the outwards stroke and back toward the body as the stroke moves back inward. At the same time, legs will be in motion: either move them like you’re riding a bike or kick them in flutter kick (scissor motion). 

Swim with a kickboard. Ah, the kickboard. If you’ve ever taken swimming lessons, this simple device likely taught you to kick and gave you confidence. You can still benefit from using a kickboard, probably in more ways than you think. Here are a few:

Hold the kickboard out in front of you, arms straight, hands gripping the end of the board closest to you and flutter kick while practicing your freestyle breathing technique. 

Backstroke with kickboard. Did this one surprise you? Here’s how Swimming World Magazine suggests you do it: Swimmers will actually use two kickboards (smaller or “half” kickboards work better than full size boards, especially for smaller swimmers) and hold each one along their forearm. Make sure the board is in line with their arm, and from there the challenge is to swim down the length of the pool while holding onto the kickboards. The idea is that the kickboard creates a large surface area to create contact with the water.

Isolate your upper body. Place the kickboard between your thighs and squeeze. This will support your legs, allowing you to concentrate on your arms. You can also place the kickboard under your chest and keep the bottom edge above your hip bones. Now you’re free to focus on your front crawl arm positioning and stroke.  

Water aerobics. Typically done in a class setting, water aerobics is similar to a land aerobics class. You’ll start with a warm-up, move through a variety of exercises and cool down. Its benefits include its low injury risk, all-over toning, working all major muscle groups, improved mobility and flexibility and FUN.  

Water walking. Nice and easy on your joints, water walking is performed in waist to chest-deep water. Now, walk forward as you would on land. Vary your pace and stride, walk backward, sideways. Do high knees to increase your workload. Pump your arms in the water. When you get the hang of it, try intervals like 100 steps going fast, 50 steps backward and so on.

Weights in the pool. Water offers a nice resistance level on its own, but you can amplify its effect by adding water weights to your in-pool resistance workout. Your gym may have water weights available for you to try, if not you may want to pick up ankle or wrist weights, which strap on; foam dumbbells, which become heavy when you immerse them and a buoyancy belt to help keep your head above water.  


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