The popularity of water aerobics has been on an upward trend since at least 2009, and today, more than 20,000 gyms across America offer aqua aerobics classes (source). Water aerobics boasts a litany of health benefits that are nothing short of extraordinary—i.e., weight loss, balance improvements, and muscle toning. So, what is it about this non-traditional program that’s leading fitness enthusiasts into the pool?
Water aerobics helps to lower blood pressure, heart rate, stress levels, the risk of joint and bone injury, and deadly disease risks (like heart disease and diabetes). The reduced gravity and low-impact nature of water aerobics can also help develop balance, coordination, and muscle tone.
Learning about anything in the health arena can be confusing if you’re not fitness-savvy. Words like “hypertension,” “low-impact,” and “stamina” might seem like buzzwords that you haven’t gotten around to learning yet. To learn about what water aerobics does to the body in much simpler terms, read on!
What Is Water Aerobics?
Water aerobics is slowly becoming one of the most popular fitness classes in gyms across the country. Water aerobics’ premise is simple: Do regular aerobic exercises that get your heart rate up—like jumping, stepping, and jogging—while standing or floating in a waist-deep pool.
Water aerobics can also take various styles and intensity levels to keep classes exciting and reach a wider audience. Some lessons will infuse water equipment like kickboards and noodles, while others might venture off into the deep end for aqua jogging.
Many people assume that water aerobics is low-intensity or strictly for the elderly. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Follow along as we discuss the potential physical benefits of trying a water aerobics program.
Lower Resting Heart Rate & Blood Pressure
Of the more than 2,839,205 Americans who die each year, about 25% of them pass from heart disease—America’s leading cause of death (source). The combination of an unhealthy diet and an inactive lifestyle can take a toll on the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system.
Two things can result:
- When resting heart rate becomes too high (usually 100+ beats per minute), it’s a sign that the heart is weak and is working overtime to get blood to every area of the body.
- When resting blood pressure is too high (120/80), it puts dangerous force on the delicate heart, blood vessels, and artery walls—damage can occur.
Both of these conditions can increase your risk of having a heart attack or suffering a stroke. Thankfully, water aerobics can return both to a healthy range while reducing your risk of potentially deadly heart disease. That’s because water aerobics is a cardiovascular workout that exercises the heart in the same way squats target the quadriceps.
Even two water aerobics sessions a week can lower your systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 1 mmHg, slash your resting heart rate by 8+ beats per minute, and lower cholesterol by 7 mg/dl (source). The result is a stronger heart muscle that can pump nutrient-rich blood more efficiently and with less effort.
The lack of gravity in the pool can also support healthier blood flow during exercise. A land exercise might cause your heart rate to jump to 140 beats per minute in a matter of minutes. But this same exercise in the pool will limit this heart rate increase by an average of 7 bpm. On top of putting less strain on your heart during a workout, water aerobics can feel less tiresome.
Burn 500+ Calories Per Session
Healthy body weight is something that more than 70% of American adults struggle with daily (source). Every year, about 50% of us will attempt to shed a few pounds, either through diet, exercise, or a combination of the two. One of the biggest roadblocks in weight loss is the belief that the only way to burn calories is by going for a jog—that’s not true!
Water aerobics can potentially burn 500+ calories an hour!
To put that into perspective, a high-intensity water aerobics class is about equivalent to running (600 calories) and biking (750 calories) in that same sense. Now, you might not believe that right off the bat. But you have to remember that:
- Since your sweat wicks off into the pool during water aerobics, it’s hard to get a gauge on how hard you’re working.
- Kicking, jumping, and jogging in the pool can be draining as it is on land after 30 minutes.
Even three-hour-long water aerobics classes a week can help you burn an extra 1,500 calories or about half a pound of fat! But the number on the scale isn’t the only indicator of good health. In those with obesity, water aerobics can cut 3 pounds and reduce waist circumference by 1.2 inches in six weeks. A regular water aerobics routine—paired with a healthy diet—can help with weight loss, reducing pants size, and building a toned physique (source).
Build Strength, Power, & Stamina
Many people walk past the gym pool, see a low-intensity workout class, and assume that water aerobics is for real fitness newbies. However, there’s far more to water aerobics as a whole than gentle kicking along the pool’s edge or arm raises above the head. Intermediate and advanced exercises can do wonders on the strength, power, and stamina fronts!
Here are a few examples of water aerobics exercises, and you’ll see why.
The aqua teaser is both a cardio workout and core exercise; using your arms to keep yourself afloat will increase your heart rate, just like swimming, and bringing your knees to your chest will activate the ab muscles to build a strong core:
The water taxi requires a fair amount of upper body strength—particularly in the back muscles—to keep yourself from falling forward, and gripping the kickboard under your legs while sitting upright will target your ab muscles:
Aqua jogging might not feel as tough on your knees and hips as jogging on land, but experimenting with different variations and doing each for several minutes at a time will get your heart rate up and improve your endurance:
There are two reasons for the stamina, power, and strength increases:
- It takes constant effort to stay afloat in a pool to keep from going under.
- The resistance of water is about ten times heavier than air, adding natural resistance to basic exercises. Water aerobics might not pack on 20 pounds of muscle, but you’ll notice the fitness improvements in your daily life.
Reduce Pressure on the Joints, Muscles, & Bones
Getting older means recognizing that you can no longer do what you once used to—at least not to the same extent. Waking up in the morning comes with unexplained aches and pains, and every step on the pavement seems to feel ten times heavier than in your glory days.
In the gym, these physical health declines can translate to (source):
- A 6% drop in stamina per decade.
- An 8% decrease in muscle mass (or tone) per decade.
- A 5% reduction in bone mass per decade.
Chronic conditions like osteoporosis, arthritis, and sarcopenia (muscle wasting) can make routine exercises like biking and running extraordinarily painful. Yet, ironically, regular exercise can improve the outlook of many of these conditions—it’s certainly a catch 22.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of water aerobics is that exercising in waist-deep water can make you feel 50% lighter (source). To put that into perspective, jumping jacks on land might leave your knees aching or hamstrings burning after just a few reps. Meanwhile, jumping jacks in water could cut the lower-body muscle, joint, and bone pressure by half. Neck-deep water can further reduce these loads by up to 90%!
Therefore, water aerobics is an excellent alternative for those with degenerative diseases where land exercises could be dangerous (i.e., broken bones, risk of falling). Many doctors recommend pool workouts to reduce joint stiffness, strengthen muscles, and relieve pain. Long-term, water aerobics can make daily tasks like getting the mail or standing up less painful.
Improve Mood & Lower Stress Levels
The physical benefits of water aerobics are unquestionable. More muscle mass, improved balance, and even weight loss might be all it takes for you to say, “I’m in!” However, it’s impossible to be truly healthy when you put your mental and emotional health on the backburner. Today, more than 51.5 million Americans struggle with mental anguish or illness (source).
Exercise—especially water aerobics—can help you look better on the outside and feel better on the inside. These mental health benefits come from:
- Soothing Warmth: The steady warmth of water aerobics pools can provide a gentle sense of comfort in those with depression and anxiety.
- Endorphin Release: Exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, known as the “feel-good” hormone, which can naturally enhance mood.
- Productivity: If getting out of bed and leaving the house makes it a “good day,” squeezing in a workout can make you feel even productive and proud.
- Pain & Stiffness Reduction: Water aerobics and swimming can ease pain in those with MS, fibromyalgia, or osteoporosis—a mood booster in and of itself!
- Family Bonding: If you’re planning to bring the entire family to the pool for a workout, being with one another can reduce stress and enhance your mood.
- Boosted Confidence: Being in the pool, exercising, and improving health can also ignite self-esteem in those who struggle.
A single water aerobics session won’t automatically rid you of lingering depression, anxiety, or stress. But water aerobics can undoubtedly be a reliable stress relief tool after a long day at work. On top of triggering an endorphin release and a relieving sense of productivity, a tiring water workout can help you get more restful sleep at night.
Develop Greater Mobility & Better Range of Motion
The glaring trouble with improving physical health is that your own body limits you. For example, it’s hard to build chest strength if you can’t do a push-up or even lift the barbell. This is where water aerobics takes the cake over nearly any other style of exercise: You can do things in the water that you can’t do on land!
These benefits stem from the “weightless” feeling of being in the water and fewer restrictions.
Take the case of an overweight person doing marches in the gym. By the time they reach the halfway point of repetition, they might feel unbalanced or lack the strength to continue driving the knee upward. This person will never reap the full core, range of motion, and glute benefits of finishing the entire rep—unless they bring their workout to the pool.
In this instance, the lack of gravity pulling the leg down (and buoyancy) can make a full march step that much easier. Regular water aerobics classes that include flexibility exercises and building a range of motion (doing the entire rep) can eventually bring their benefits outside of the pool. Whereas doing squats on land can be painful, practicing them in the pool can pose the same muscle and joint benefits.
Later on when you have a baseline level of strength, you can begin adding more resistance to the exercise.
Avoid Overheating During Exercise
While certainly motivating, adopting this mindset can prove to be more dangerous than anything. Judging your workout’s quality by the sweat beads on your forehead and not your heart rate or calories burned can lead you to the point of overexertion. In an attempt to work harder and run faster, you might wind up causing heat cramps, dizziness, or fainting!
Water aerobics offers a more temperature-controlled environment than your regular air-conditioned gym. Instead of an 80℉ facility that only seems to be getting hotter the more you ramp up the intensity, the water around you in the pool will always be a steady 78-82℉ (26-28°C) (source). The temperature will help you to feel cool, less sweaty and lower the risk of heat-related injury.
Develop Balance and Coordination
For those suffering from vertigo, migraines, osteoporosis, traumatic brain injuries, or Parkinson’s disease, even doing menial daily tasks can be dangerous. A sudden loss of balance or a misstep on land can lead to a bone-breaking fall or severe head injury. In these situations, using the treadmill or stack of steppers in the gym can be terrifying.
Water aerobics is one of the safest aerobic alternatives for those at risk for falling!
The first significant balance benefit occurs while you’re still in the pool. Whereas a rhythmic dance class forces you to rely on your own feet to stay upright, being waist-deep (or neck-deep) in a pool gives you a 360° anchor.
Losing your balance no longer means crashing to the floor and having to catch yourself with outstretched arms. The lack of gravity in water will give you more than enough time to readjust your balance and continue with the exercise.
But as it turns out, these balance and coordination benefits continue long after you’ve toweled off and driven home. Along with a lower risk of falling, water aerobics can also enhance full-body strength, flexibility, and gait in the elderly or disabled (source).
One of the possible explanations for this phenomenon is that water aerobics reduces the fear of falling. More confidence in the pool and the resulting physical improvements can improve balance on land.
Lower Risk of Certain Deadly Diseases
Over 102 million Americans have pre-existing health conditions that are taxing on the body and can dramatically shorten life expectancy (source). Some disorders are genetic, irreversible, or stem from a prior accident. Others are lifestyle diseases and only exist because of poor lifestyle choices—i.e., inactivity, smoking, drinking alcohol, and an unhealthy diet.
Water aerobics may not be the “magic fix” to any medical conditions. But regular participation can potentially lessen the risk or improve the symptoms of conditions like:
- Type II Diabetes
- Chronic Pain
- High Cholesterol
- Heart Disease
- Early Death
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
For these reasons, many medical professionals recommend water aerobics as an aerobic alternative for those with underlying muscle, bone, joint, or heart issues. That helps to explain why your gym’s water aerobics classes always seem to have more elderly participants than any other demographic. But don’t let that fool you—water aerobics is for everyone!
Like any aerobic exercise, the health benefits of water aerobics depends on the intensity of your workout. The CDC recommends five 30-minute workouts per week at a moderate-intensity to maximize health benefits (source). In other words, stay within your target heart rate zone:
- 220 – [Your Age] = Maximum Heart Rate
- 0.50 x [Maximum Heart Rate] = Low-End of THRZ
- 0.85 x [Maximum Heart Rate] = High-End of THRZ
The products of steps two and three set the boundaries for your ideal THRZ. In a few weeks or months, you’ll notice that your water aerobics classes seem easier and far less exhausting.