Misconceptions about Water Exercise

You hear how wonderful the water is from the media, doctors, and anyone who participates in aquatic exercise; however, there are still those who believe otherwise. As a certified aquatics instructor, I have had some interesting conversations with people once they find out that I teach aquatic exercise. Some of the comments I have heard include, “I have a friend that was injured and he/she rehabbed in the water,” and “I don’t exercise in the water, but my grandmother does.” I also have heard, “I do not know how to swim, and I don’t like to get my hair wet” and “You cannot get a tough workout in the water.”

Confronting common misconceptions will break down the barriers that may have kept you from enjoying the full benefits of water exercise.

Misconception 1: You must be injured to exercise in the water.

The water is an excellent place for an injured person to exercise since it allows for weight-bearing activities in a reduced gravitational environment. The buoyancy factor of the water aids in supporting the body, thus reducing the weight contacting the pool bottom (i.e. the amount of impact) based on the depth of the water. Standing in water that is neck-deep will reduce the body’s weight by ninety percent. Standing in chest-depth water will reduce the body’s weight by about seventy-five percent, and in waist depth the cancelled body weight is fifty percent.

The reduction of one’s body weight helps to decrease the load on the joints and diminish the pain that is felt when moving on land against the resistance of gravity. This is a nice feature when injured or rehabbing from an injury; however, anyone can take advantage of this feature. Instead of wearing yourself out by pounding the pavement on land, cross train in the water to continue to keep the muscles strong, yet minimize the amount of stress and impact to the joints.

The water’s hydrostatic pressure is another wonderful feature of aquatic exercise. The water acts as a compressor on the whole body to move the blood more efficiently through the veins and arteries, which in turn helps to reduce edema, or swelling. Hydrostatic pressure also helps the blood return to the heart when exercising, whereas on land there is a greater tendency of the blood to pool in our lower extremities. Just another great reason to work out in the aquatic environment!

Misconception 2Only older people exercise in the water.

While many older adults do enjoy water exercise, this is not just the only group that enjoys aquatic exercise. There are many who take advantage of this environment to exercise.  Take athletes, for instance—they realize that the water is another tool that can be used to improve performance. They take advantage of drag as one of the unique properties of the water that anyone can benefit from. Drag is the force that opposes a body’s movement in the aquatic environment. The limb or body part must be submerged to encounter the influences of drag. An individual can effectively work in all directions of movement due to the drag forces of the water. An athlete exercising in the water will run faster, kick higher and with more distance, and jump higher on land thanks to their aquatic training.

What can you do in the pool to train your inner athlete? Sprinting forwards and backwards in the water at differing depths will challenge the body. The various depths will determine the amount of your body weight you are moving through the water. The shallower the water, the more body weight and the easier the movement; the deeper the water, the less the body weighs but the harder it will be to move due to the drag of the water. Maintain proper form and gradually increase your speed and distance to see continued results.

Want to adjust the workout intensity? Use the principle of frontal resistance. The frontal resistance of the water is similar to trying to walk against a very strong wind, such as the wind from a tropical storm. Frontal resistance is from the horizontal forces of the water and is dependent upon the size and shape of the object moving through the water. Moving your arms and legs, or the equipment (such as a noodle or webbed gloves), or your entire body in the water allows you to feel the resistance and gain the benefits. Larger surface areas yield more resistance to the water. For instance, you can easily change the surface area of your hands when moving through the water. A hand that is slicing has a small amount of surface area and will move a small amount of water, whereas leading with the palm and/or back of the hand will produce a greater amount of water being moved, making the effort more challenging.

Myth 3:  You must know how to swim and your hair will get wet.

One does not need to know how to swim to exercise in the water; although helpful to make the most out of your workout, it is not a requirement. Swimming is performed in a horizontal position, whereas the body is primarily vertical with water fitness programs. Shallow water exercise is performed in water that ranges from waist to chest depth. The feet are in contact with the pool bottom while the head remains out of the water.

The shallower the water, the greater the impact, which is why chest depth is generally the optimal choice for shallow water exercise.  This allows the body to move through the water in a full range of motion with control. When you are too deep (in a workout designed for shallow water), you will have a tendency to remain on your tiptoes, which will lead to muscle imbalance and soreness. The correct water depth encourages you to press the heels to the pool bottom and allows you to transition from one move to another without feeling out of control or unable to keep up with the exercises.

There are many water fitness classes where the hair stays dry. However there are also classes that will warn participants that their hair will get wet. This may be an advanced class or one that includes special challenges, for example an aquatic boot camp. Remember that there are always options when exercising in the water. If keeping your hair dry is an important consideration, your instructor can give you modifications for exercises.

Myth 4: You cannot get a tough workout in the water.

The water can be very soothing and relaxing, but it can also provide a challenging workout. A body submerged in water will encounter resistance from all directions. The water offers more resistance than air, so the water alone can be an effective tool to use when exercising.

In addition, the physical laws that govern movement will also have a direct and vital impact on water exercise. The intensity level and physical challenge of the workout are often dependent upon how hard you really want to work. Since knowledge is power, take this physics refresher course and get more out of your workout:

The law of inertia states that an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. The objects in reference here would be the limbs and submerged body, as well as the water itself. It requires muscular effort just to move our limbs in the water when starting, stopping or changing directions. When we move our entire body through the water, such as traveling forwards and backwards, it requires additional effort from our muscles to start the movement, stop the movement, or change directions. The water itself begins to move in a specific direction, so you will need to overcome the inertia of the water.  So the more changes an instructor makes, the tougher the workout becomes.

The law of acceleration refers to the amount of effort or force that is applied, in this case either against the water, or off the pool bottom. For a movement to be tougher using this physical law, you would apply more effort when performing each exercise. For instance, if the basic move is a jumping jack, to make it more challenging, push harder off the pool bottom or jump higher. The goal is to apply more effort, not necessarily move faster, to make the exercise tougher.

The law of action and reaction says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This law is easily experienced in the water. For instance, when you perform a breaststroke movement with the upper body, as the arms pull the water to the back (action), the body will be propelled forward (equal and opposite reaction). If you wanted to make the workout tougher, then instead of traveling in the direction that the body tends to move, purposefully travel in the opposite direction, or backward in this case. The body is forced to work harder to go against the waters’ flow.

Finally, including exercise equipment can make the workout tougher. The equipment could be water-specific, such as drag or buoyant equipment, or it could be equipment that is also used on land, such as bands or even weighted equipment.


There are many different aquatic programs that offer a variety of training options—everyone can benefit no matter age, ability level, swimming skills, or desire to keep the hair dry! To make sure you are taking the right class, check the schedule and then look at the description, which should give you a better idea of what the program targets and the difficulty level. Trying a variety of classes will give you a better idea of what is best for your personal interests and goals. And don’t forget, how tough the workouts are is really up to you.

Come give a water exercise class a try for free at River Cities Community Pool!