Dive in for a water workout

Overweight Campers Learn to Shed Pounds
Increasingly, water fitness classes are attracting a younger following.William Thomas Cain / Getty Images file

If you'd like to try something new to get in shape this summer, consider Pilates, kickboxing or personal training — in the pool.

Water workouts aren't just for grannies in swim caps anymore.

"Most pools today look like a three-ring circus with all kind of programs going on," says John Spannuth, president of the U.S. Water Fitness Association in Boynton Beach, Fla., which certifies instructors.

Though exercising in the water was once widely considered a lightweight form of fitness — mainly for seniors with aching joints — today's participants are a diverse group of young and old, male and female, beginners and professional athletes alike, says Spannuth.

"In the past five years, the perception has changed a lot," says Heather Cook, a spokesperson for the Cleveland County Family YMCA in Norman, Okla.

Cook says more younger members at her facility are becoming interested in pool workouts. Among them are athletes and serious fitness buffs who are seeking an edge. They dive into the pool as part of a cross-conditioning program or because they're training for a triathlon or other sporting event.

Beyond swim lessons
Her facility offers the old standbys — swim lessons, water walking and classes geared toward seniors, such as ones for those with arthritis. But beyond that, women and men of all ages take yoga and Pilates in the pool. Several high-intensity classes in deep and shallow water aim to condition, sculpt and strengthen. A class called "TNT" targets the tummies and thighs. "Baby" is just for pregnant women and new moms, while "Singin' Splash" is a song-and-game class for parents and kids ages 6 months to 5 years.

Tiffany Wood, 27, has been taking water classes at the Y for the last year and a half, mostly deep-water sessions that focus on interval training and muscle-building. And she's been surprised at how well she's firmed up. "You burn a lot of calories and you tone," says Wood, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma.

She also finds the water energizing. "You come out of the water feeling rejuvenated instead of feeling like you've just sweated your butt off at the gym," she says.

Across the country, a variety of land activities, including kickboxing and other martial arts, are being adapted to the water, says Julia See, president of the Aquatic Exercise Association in Nokomis, Fla., another certifying body. Over the past four years, the AEA has seen a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in the number of water fitness classes offered.

Statistics show that about 6 million Americans exercise in the pool, and participation has increased 7 percent over the past two years, according to the AEA.

See says baby boomers, who are looking for exercise that's easier on their banged-up knees and ankles, are a driving force. But increasingly, aquatic fitness is attracting an even younger following, with the average age of participants now at 40. She expects more kids and young adults to get involved because of the epidemic of obesity; water activity makes it easier to move around.

Cook says overweight individuals and many beginners at the Y are increasingly taking advantage of one of the newest trends in water fitness — aquatic personal training.

Usually the training is one-on-one. But some aquatic trainers offer small group personal training, with three to five clients at a time. And some even make house calls for people with private pools who seek personalized attention.

A real workout
So just how tough of a workout can you get in the pool? That depends on the activity, but Spannuth cautions that people who overdo it at first can end up very sore the next day, just like with a land workout.

Participants in water fitness classes use a range of equipment, including flotation belts, special water weights, foam noodles and webbed gloves to help them perform their moves in the water and increase the challenge. "We have 12 to 14 times more resistance in water than we have in air, and the resistance equipment will increase that," says Spannuth.

Aquatic classes work the cardiovascular system, and can strengthen and tone, though probably not as much as with pumping iron. "The body builder may not be challenged but the average person will get some great strength gains," says See.

Still, professional and recreational athletes, including football and baseball players, have found other benefits from the water, notes Spannuth. Some basketball players use the pool to improve their vertical jump. Sprinters run in the shallow end to boost explosiveness, while distance runners take to the deep end to work on endurance.

But you don't have to go to a pool to work out in the water this summer. Popular water sports such as kayaking, surfing and even boogie boarding can help you get fit, cool off and have fun.

And of course, you can always take a swim in the ocean or go jump in a lake — just make sure a lifeguard is on duty.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.