No Sweat Exercise: Aquatics

Article Highlights:
  • The author, who has CMT, explains how aquatic exercise allows for unrestricted movement and provides some important health benefits, particularly to people with neuromuscular diseases. 
  • Exercising in a pool can be ideal for people with disabilities because it allows people to engage in physical activity that coincides with their abilities.
  • The author also includes information about some aquatic accessories for those who'd like to change up their pool workouts.
by Barbara Twardowski with Jim Twardowski, R.N. on July 1, 2003 - 3:55pm

When my son was 3 years old, I held him in my arms. With amazement, he looked at me and said, "Mommy, you're carrying me!"

I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and, because I used crutches, I had never walked while holding him. Now, we were standing in a swimming pool. After explaining to him how the water could support me, he suggested we fill our house with water so that I could always walk.

In a swimming pool, I not only can walk, but I can jump, kick, bend, jog and twirl. At nearly zero gravity, the water allows unrestricted movement. While providing buoyancy, it also creates 12 times more resistance than I get on land.

Katie Napiwocki, 17, of Wausau, Wis., practices aquatics regularly. Here, Katie, who has SMA, uses water paddles to perform range-of-motion exercises. Photos by Jon Bendrick.
Sebastian Boge helps Katie work on balance and muscle strengthening, by pushing a noodle straight down.


Katie wears a flotation belt and uses a noodle for balance and range of motion.

Exercising in the pool (aquatics) can reduce water retention, increase circulation, limber and strengthen muscles, increase balance, and provide an aerobic workout at reduced impact, which puts less stress on joints.

"Aquatic exercise levels the playing field because everyone is equal in the water. You do what you are comfortable doing, modifying the exercise to fit your ability," says Joan Beckstrom, director of Water Group Exercise at Pelican Athletic Club in Mandeville, La. "The water creates resistance. So just walking in the pool is exercising your body."

Water is a forgiving environment. No matter your age, size or physical ability, the water is a good fit.

My aquatics class is a diverse group. One young woman is pregnant, another is recovering from a car accident, and another alternates her exercise routine by playing tennis one day and aquatics the next.

Aquatic exercise feels good because, although you might sweat during exercise, the water keeps your body cool.

The water provides a full-body workout. While you're working a particular muscle group, like legs, you're still using your arms and torso for balance. The continual and engulfing resistance of the water is constant.

I don't hurt while I'm working out in the water and, after a workout, I feel relaxed ... like I've had a massage.

"Water is a great medium. In a pool, people with neuromuscular disease can move and do what they can't ordinarily do on land," said Jenny Robison, a physical therapist in the Department of Neurology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., who works with the Vanderbilt MDA clinic. "For example, a patient who can't raise her arms above her head will find she has complete range of motion when the water level in the pool reaches her neck. The water's buoyancy makes exercising easier for those with muscle weakness."

An aquatics class offers participants an opportunity to socialize. With the music thumping and our teacher instructing, we still find time to talk. The actual exercise never gets boring because the various instructors use different moves and equipment.

"For a lot of people, aquatics is the only exercise they can do. Ideally, start with a therapist demonstrating the exercises you can do in the water. Listen to your body. If you take an aquatics class, reduce the repetitions or the length of the class to fit your ability," Robison said.

sqaure float Sprint Aquatics
This square float from Sprint Aquatics is one of many flotation devices that can provide support in the water.
JHydro Tone Mini FIn
These lightweight Mini-Fins from Hydro-Tone Fitness Systems create resistance during aquatic exercise.

From kickboxing and step classes to stretching and yoga-like moves, traditional health club workouts can be duplicated in the pool. You can do aquatics without any equipment, but if you want to increase resistance or simply add variety to a workout, try some of the following accessories:

Flotation belt

The belt keeps the body afloat while allowing the wearer to run or walk in place, perform jumping jacks, and do straight leg kicks. Strap the belt around your waist and head for the deep end of the pool.

Foam barbells

Foam barbells used in the pool weigh next to nothing, but try pushing them down through the water. (If your hands are weak, noodles — the long, flexible foam cylinders popular with swimmers — might be easier.)

With the foam barbells, you can move your arms in breast-stroke motion. Place them at your sides and punch them down alternating each arm like a piston, or use them to do traditional curls. Use the foam barbells as a flotation device. Holding one in each hand, you can recline with legs together and knees bent. Twist the knees to one side. Keep the knees together and twist to the opposite side.

Power 8 Exercise Tube

Latex tubing shaped like a figure 8 is an inexpensive accessory. You can use this tool with hands or feet. If you don't have the Power 8 Exercise Tube, resistance bands, like those physical therapists use, work well and come in various strength levels.


An open hand glides through the water. Wearing a webbed glove provides the maximum resistance when working the upper body.


Buttocks and thighs get an intense work out when you hold on to a kickboard and glide across the pool. If you don't have a kickboard, hold on to the side of the pool and kick.

Aqua step

Aqua Shirt H2O Wear
The Aqua Shirt from H2O Wear provides additional warmth when worn over a swimsuit.

This step device stays put while you step up and down, perform jumping jacks or do cross-country skiing moves.


"The greatest piece of equipment for aquatic exercise is the noodle. Although it is primarily for buoyancy, it can be used a dozen different ways," Beckstrom said.

A noodle can be placed behind your back and will hold you up while you're doing leg lifts, abdominal crunches and scissor kicks. Ride the noodle like a horse while your legs move as though riding a bicycle.

The noodle can be turned into a "U" shape. Push it down to the bottom of the pool with your foot to work leg muscles. Drag the noodle through the water for added resistance when working the arms. At the end of my aquatics routine, I tie the noodle into a knot and place it behind my head while stretching my neck.

Hydro-Tone Mini-Fin

The bright yellow Hydro-Tone Mini-Fin looks like a winged creature. Strap the fin to your ankle or wrist for increased resistance.

What to wear

A bathing suit is the standard attire for aquatics classes. However, if you are modest or chill easily, H2O Wear makes a zippered jacket that can be worn in the pool.

Another alternative is to wear runner or cyclist clothing, which works well at repelling the water. One of my instructors wears running shorts over her bathing suit and another wears bicycle pants. Both of them teach their classes from poolside and jump in and out of the water as they demonstrate proper techniques. In cold weather, wearing a hat will help keep you warmer.

The bottom of a pool can be slippery. Proper shoes prevent sliding and add cushioned support. A large selection of aqua shoes is available from Sprint Aquatics/Rothhammer International.

Editor's Note: Before beginning any exercise program, consult your physician. Go slowly when you first begin exercising in the pool.

Don't use resistance equipment until you've built up strength and endurance. For safety, always exercise with a buddy. If your balance is poor, cautiously try flotation devices.

One of the biggest obstacles to doing aquatic exercise is access to a pool. Health clubs, hotels, colleges, hospitals or private swimming instructors may have pools that meet your needs

Aquatics Resources

Aquatic Access
(800) 325-5438

H2O Wear
(800) 321-7848

(800) 622-8663

(888) 477-3336

Sprint Aquatics/Rothhammer International
(800) 235-2156

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