Think back to childhood. Nothing worked up an appetite like an afternoon swim. The problem is, we rarely indulge in this kind of physical activity once we graduate high school—you know, the kind that’s so fun that we forget we’re even doing something that counts as exercise. Turns out, there’s a whole world of aquatic activities we can explore to break free of gym monotony—and have a great time while we’re at it.
Pool-Wise: The Basics
Water exercises are unique because they’re absolutely low-impact but simultaneously intense—swimming laps burns just about the same amount of calories as running does, according to the Mayo Clinic. And you don’t have to learn the butterfly to reap the rewards.
Obviously, getting your heart rate up in the pool is different from breaking a sweat on land. Water has more resistance than air does, so simply walking across the shallow end takes more effort than, say, shuffling around the block. Two factors that come into play during aqua activities are buoyancy and drag. Drag refers to the resistance we feel as we move through the water, and buoyancy refers to the way our bodies float to the top. Adjusting these factors can change the feel and difficulty of any water workout. Lever length, or the span of our limbs, also comes into play. More lever length means more resistance (and therefore more calories burned), so spread out those arms and legs.
As for gear, water workouts require lots of movement, so skimpy two-pieces are best saved for lounging. Invest in a sturdy one-piece and goggles, and all that’ll come between you and your workout is braving the cold to get in the pool.
Get Pumping: Aqua Cardio
After taking my first water aerobics class and chatting with my instructor (a former synchronized swimmer), I realized that there are a wide variety of ways to log cardio time in the pool.
Don a buoyancy belt to stay afloat, and move your feet and legs just as you would if you were running on land. Vary the pace by incorporating intervals—one-minute sprints followed by two more at a moderate pace—then repeating. “The key is to really make a running motion, not [a] bicycling [one],” says Ali Costa, my instructor. “Keep the core strong and move the legs and feet like they’re hitting the pavement.”
Running in the shallow end is slightly less challenging than the deepwater version. “Slice your hands through the water like you’d move them running on land,” says Costa, “and circle the shallow area of the pool.” My class incorporated intervals into this exercise, mixing hard pushes with recovery periods.
Other Cardio Variations
Change your arm motions while running, keeping your arms totally straight or alternating back and forth like scissors. Also, try sidestepping across the pool with jumping-jack arms, jumping forward and backward, walking with knee lifts and karate kicks, doing jumping jacks, and pressing your arms up and down in front and by your sides. Combining these exercises will help you work up a sweat fast (at least figuratively; after all, you’re in the water).
In addition to providing you with a good cardio workout, pool work is ideal for resistance-training exercises (thanks to that whole drag thing).
Water workouts not only increase your heart rate, they also tone your muscles. The caveat? They do require some special equipment. Webbed gloves or water barbells create extra underwater resistance that gets muscles working. Whether you have the gloves or the weights, incorporating exercises like bicep curls and shoulder raises between cardio moves will give you an upper-body workout. “Just make sure the resistance is tough enough that you can do only twelve to fifteen at a time,” says Costa. “Otherwise, you won’t be working hard enough to see real results.”
Who says Pilates is the only way to work the core? Shallow water can be a great place to strengthen your abs and back. Hold on to the side of the pool or a flotation device, like a kickboard, and bring your knees up to your chest using only your abdominal muscles. Easy? Try it while treading water, or add a twist to incorporate your obliques.
Holding on to the pool’s edge, extend one leg out to the side and raise it as high as possible while keeping your toes up—this requires and builds core strength.
In the shallow end with your feet flat on the ground, bend your knees and push your hips back so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Squeeze your glutes and stand back up. Hold water weights for an extra challenge.
Gyms and pools are offering more and more of these creative water workouts. I learned a little about some of the most popular ones out there now.
Similar to the do-it-yourself water workout moves above, water aerobics get your heart rate up and tone your muscles—with the added bonus that someone else is figuring out your routine beforehand. Some water aerobics classes even incorporate kickboxing.
Similar to traditional yoga, this underwater version takes students through yoga poses that they’re required to hold without help from gravity.
Water ballerinas execute dance combinations in the water—like a dance class, but with the extra challenge of breathing and water resistance.
For people who are into team sports, signing up for a water polo lesson or a recreational team can be a creative alternative to a city soccer league. Players work together to throw a ball into a goal while swimming back and forth across the pool—sort of like hockey.
The combination of cardio and toning possibilities a pool workout offers means that we don’t need to spend hours between cardio machines and weight-room crowds to get results—what’s not to like about that?