Water polo is one of the most exciting, and at the same time, most challenging sports in the world. Two teams battle it out in the pool for four quarters, and to win, they must combine a wide array of different skills and strategies. This has led many to wonder: does water polo get you in shape, and if so, what are the health benefits?
Water polo can get you in shape by:
- accelerating weight loss
- increasing strength
- improving cardiovascular health
- boosting mental health and social confidence
- developing balance and coordination
- enhancing flexibility and mobility
- building on speed and power
In this article, each of these incredible health benefits offered by the great sport of water polo will be explored in detail. We will go through how these benefits carry over into your day-to-day life and what they mean for your health long term. Finally, we will discuss whether water polo is suitable for everyone to get in shape, or only a certain subset of aspiring athletes.
1.) Accelerates Weight Loss By Burning Hundreds of Extra Calories
The very first thing many people want to know is how water polo can help them lose weight, shed unwanted body fat, and maintain a healthy figure.
The effect that consistent participation in water polo will have on weight loss is immense.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the pool knows that it can be physically exhausting, even just to casually swim laps and tread water. This is because even to simply stay afloat in deep water requires some amount of constant effort and active exertion.
Water polo is not only a matter of swimming—which alone is enough to create an incredible weight loss effect—but it also encompasses the competitive element of trying to battle for possession of the ball, set up plays, carry out strategies, and attempt to score points for your team.
To give you some perspective, a 185 pound individual will burn approximately 406 calories in 28 active minutes of water polo (source). At the varsity level, each period last seven minutes according to the NFHS (source). These periods actually last several minutes longer in real time due to the numerous clock stoppages. So you can realistically expect to burn at least a couple hundred calories in just one single game.
Anyone new to the water polo sport will notice that they become exhausted very quickly, even those with prior athletic experience. Start slow, be persistent, and allow the body time to adapt to this unique stimulus.
2.) Proportional Increase in Muscular Size & Strength
Next, let’s shift our attention to the second most transferable benefit of water polo on this list: strength.
The increase in physical strength that a person will develop as they continue to gain water polo experience will be very apparent. Repeatedly sprinting through the water with maximal effort will recruit every muscle in the entire body, including, but not limited to, the:
When the muscles of the body contract against a force of resistance, it produces micro-damage or micro-tears in the muscle fibers. As these micro-tears repair themselves through rest, hydration, and nutrition, they heal back bigger, stronger, and more developed. This process of muscle growth and regeneration is known as hypertrophy (source).
In contrast to other forms of strength and conditioning, water polo is a full body workout, which minimizes the likelihood of any one muscle being underdeveloped or overdeveloped.
Disproportionate muscle development can be a common issue in other forms of physical activity, like weightlifting, where certain muscle groups can be unintentionally neglected. For example, casual gym-goers that skip leg day tend to have an an unbalanced, top-heavy appearance. With water polo, this isn’t nearly as much of an issue.
Just know that someone engaging in water polo for the first time will likely experience extremely sore muscles for two to three days following the bout. This is known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and is common whenever a new stressor is introduced to the body. Don’t worry; this goes away and decreases in intensity as the body gets used to the new activity.
In short, the physical gains that result from water polo will make you both bigger and stronger, helping you to achieve a well-rounded, functional physique.
3.) Growth in Speed & Power Increases Overall Athleticism
Since the body is one unit and functions as parts of a whole, any improvement in one area is bound to transfer over to another somehow. A prime example of this logic is demonstrated in the relationship between weight loss and speed.
Weight loss will improve a person’s speed by default, even though speed and body weight are not entirely the same, as there is less load to carry around on your frame.
An important differentiation that many people are unaware of is that of strength versus power and speed.
Whereas strength is the ability to slowly and continually apply force against an opposing resistance, power is the ability to generate force quickly. In other words, power is strength divided by time.
Water polo requires that players and goalies be able to lunge, jump, and pop up out of the water explosively. With these skills, players can effectively block shots and passes, plus change directions at a moment’s notice. Pure strength will not be enough to facilitate this demand. Speed and explosiveness are equally, if not even more, important.
Put simply, increasing your speed will help you become fitter, more athletic, and all-around healthier looking.
4.) Forces the Cardiovascular System to Work with Greater Efficiency
Of all the benefits mentioned on this list, this may be the most vital, as the cardiovascular system is the most directly correlated to an individual’s overall health.
Recall that the cardiovascular system is a sub-branch of the broader circulatory system. The cardiovascular system’s specific function involves the heart, the lungs, and the oxygenation process in general.
As the blood in our body circulates through the lungs, it is oxygenated. From there, oxygen and other vital nutrients can be transported to other parts of the body for cell nourishment.
The stronger your lungs become through strenuous bouts of intense exercise, such as the type offered by competitive water polo, the more efficient they become at this process.
Some of the more prominent improvements in everyday life that result from a healthier cardiovascular system include the following:
- More energy throughout the day
- Not getting winded from things like walking upstairs
- Less mental and physical stress
- Ability to regulate the body’s core temperature better
- Future exercise becomes easier and less strenuous
All of these benefits can be yours if you play water polo on a consistent basis. At the end of the day, receiving these benefits are what getting in shape is all about!
5.) Positively Influences Mental Health & Internal Motivation
When people talk of getting into shape, what they typically have in mind is losing fat and trimming their waistline, but seldom do they ever stop to ask themselves, how can I begin to look good if I don’t feel good?
Earlier in this article, we explained that improvements in one system would translate to improvements in another because the body functions as a unit. Mental health also has a symbiotic relationship with physical health.
Imagine for a moment, somebody suffering from depression, anxiety, and low motivation/self-esteem being very active in sports and the world of fitness. It is highly unlikely that this would ever be the case.
To have the motivation for athletic competition, you must first be confident and in a generally positive state of mind. As your physical health and skill-set improve, so too will your state of mind. This creates a cascading effect of positive reaffirmation and instills a good habit that can ward off negative emotions.
All too often, people get caught in a cycle or a “rut” where the more they put something off, the worse they feel about it, and the worse they feel, the more they put it off.
On the flip side, healthy habits also work to create a similar feedback loop. That is, the more your health improves, the happier you feel. The happier you feel, the more willing you are to work towards further improving your health.
6.) Helps with Flexibility, Mobility, & Injury Prevention
Flexibility refers to the degree to which an individual can flex and extend certain joints and muscles in the body. Mobility is your ability to move in relation to the flexibility your body permits. Both of these aspects of movement and biomechanics lend themselves greatly to injury prevention.
When muscles become taut due to inactivity, they tend to shorten, tighten up, and impede their relative joint’s ability to move through its intended range of motion. For example, someone who sits in chairs all day with their knees flexed at 90 degrees may, over time, lose the ability to bend their knee beyond 90 degrees without aggravation, pain, and discomfort.
In this case, the body forgot how to use that extra range of motion, as it no longer saw a need for it. This situation increases the likelihood of an injury because if this limited knee were to be forced into a range beyond its ability, it could result in a muscle rupture or worse.
Going back to the previous example of the knee that cannot be flexed beyond 90 degrees, a limitation such as this will likely lead to the ankle or hip being forced to perform unnatural movements to compensate. More often than not, these body parts were never intended by nature to execute such movements. This is referred to as synergistic dominance and is a direct consequence of muscular imbalance.
Fortunately, improving your flexibility will rectify this problem and prevent it before it starts.
Simply swimming in the pool will improve flexibility because the water buoyancy allows you to float and move all your joints with total freedom, where gravity is not as limiting.
There are, however, a few other, more specific ways to improve mobility, which we will now discuss.
How to Get in Shape with Water Polo Warm-Ups
Warming up is something everybody knows they ought to do. Sadly, many athletes do not take warm-ups seriously and more or less shrug them off. This is a big mistake.
Warm-ups should be brief (2-5 minutes), specific to the activity you will be performing, and begin elevating the heart rate to prepare the body for the work that is to follow.
Warm-up exercises should be done intuitively, meaning there is no exact number of sets or repetitions. Any lagging points of flexibility in the body should be prioritized first, as these parts are the most liable to injury. If you’re consistently putting forth effort during warm-ups, your body awareness and movement intuition should continue to improve.
When warming up, you should perform dynamic stretches, not static ones. Dynamic stretches are movements with continuous motions and movement, such as arm circle or leg swings. This gets the blood pumping to the area and begins preparing the muscles for work.
Static stretches are stretches where you statically hold and pull on certain muscles for timed periods. These are more aptly suited for cool-downs.
How to Get in Shape with Water Polo Cool-Downs
After an intense game or practice, many athletes will have the urge to immediately relax and go about their day. Again, this is a mistake. Players who do this miss out on a great opportunity to speed up their recovery time, reduce muscle soreness, and further improve their flexibility with a proper cool-down routine.
The cool-down should be much more slow and relaxed than the warm-up. It should consist of pulling on certain muscles with 7/10 intensity and holding various positions for 10-30 seconds at a time.
Again, the cool-down should be intuitive and individualized. If you feel a certain muscle cramping or tightening, you should gently stretch it out in the best way you can think to do.
When stretching, never push into the pain zone. It should not require strength, but rather relaxation. If you find yourself cringing and making faces, you are stretching too hard. Reduce the intensity, breathe deeply into the diaphragm, hold, and then slowly release. This will not only relax the muscles, but break up any nervous holding patterns as well.
7.) Progresses Balance & Coordination to the Next Level
The last health benefit on this list is balance and coordination.
Contrary to movement and mobility, which deal with your body’s ability to move in the absence of context, balance and coordination refer to an individual’s ability to move their body relative to their spatial environment.
Moving in water requires a great deal of balance and a sense of awareness. Water polo only exacerbates these challenges with the legality of physical contact. For this reason, balance is practically a necessity in water polo.
Improving balance will help to prevent accidents and falls, things that no rational person wants to experience any time soon. You will even find that playing water polo improves your stability when performing daily tasks, like climbing ladders and stairs.
Furthermore, the nonstop action of the game of water polo requires you to react very quickly to visual stimuli. This places a great demand on hand-eye coordination.
Hand-eye coordination, simply put, is the efficiency of the reaction time between what you see and perceive and how quickly you can physically react.
The benefit of improving your hand-eye coordination is not to be understated. It can improve your driving skills, make you less clumsy, and also help retain healthy brain function as you age.
Can Anyone Get in Shape from Water Polo?
The great thing about water polo is that virtually anyone can participate in this great sport. The only prerequisite is that you know how to swim, given that water polo is a water sport by definition. As soon as you can swim, you can begin practicing water polo!
This activity is a great way for youths to develop healthy, productive habits that promote training discipline. Such habits can carry over into many facets of life, well beyond the reaches of the pool.
If you are interested, seek a recreational league through social media or community postings and sign up. Even if you are not a particularly competitive person by nature, you will still be glad to get involved.
Dietary Notes on the Health Effects of Water Polo
One important point that must be touched on is that although water polo’s health benefits are immense, they alone are not enough to facilitate good health.
In addition to frequent water polo practice, competition, and general time in the water—an adequate diet is also essential to good health.
Lack of proper hydration, vitamins, and calories will not allow your body to heal or perform optimally.
Sleep is also indispensable for water polo players. A minimum of 6 hours is required each night. Anything less is considered suboptimal, unhealthy, and will negate all of the great health benefits mentioned in this article.
The Letscom Smart Fitness Watch is ideal for water polo players looking to get in shape because it tracks consumed versus burned calories, providing an accurate indication of how their diet should be monitored.
This watch also has other special features beyond its dietary resourcefulness. Along with being waterproof, it tracks heart rate and reminds its user when to sleep and eat. And for the price, it is simply impossible to beat the value.
Although water polo offers a flurry of health benefits, the greatest thing about water polo is its fun, exciting nature. The fact of the matter is that anyone that knows how to swim can participate, regardless of your athletic background. So ask yourself: what are you waiting for?