Water exercise that feels like play!
By Christine Crutcher
Reprinted from the Spring 1997 issue of Radiance
I've always enjoyed the water. My earliest memories include my father
teaching me to swim at age five, with the help of an inflatable seal named Snoopy. Every
year, we visited my grandmother in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to escape the heat of Texas
summers. I must have spent eight hours a day in the huge outdoor warm springs pool. At age
thirteen, I began to teach swimming. I also joined the swim team. Throughout my college
years, I was a lifeguard. At age twenty-four, I became aquatic director of a year-round
indoor facility in Eugene, Oregon. This year marks my eighteenth year as a water exercise
In 1989, I joined the staff of Hydro-Fit, Inc., a company that promotes
the benefits of water exercise worldwide. Our company sells water fitness and therapy
equipment and trains instructors in various levels of water exercise. I'm Hydro-Fit's
marketing and international sales director, and part of the educational team. I also teach
water exercise twice a week. For the past ten years, I've taught water fitness
professionals how to better serve their students. As a large woman, I have a personal
investment in trying to enlighten instructors about the needs and desires of large
From beginner to conditioned athlete, from small to large, from young to
old, we can all benefit from aquatic exercise - if we are just willing to get wet! Moving
in the water offers a low-impact or even nonimpact workout that protects the hip, knee,
and ankle joints. And you don't need to know how to swim to take classes, even in deep
Water enables you to develop strength and better muscle balance, because
every movement in one direction meets with equal resistance in the opposite direction. On
land, gravity is the downward vertical force that allows you to walk and move freely
without floating into space. Every time you lift something, say, bend a knee toward your
chest or bend an elbow holding a weighted bar, the force of gravity resists your efforts.
You become stronger by resisting the gravitational pull. In the water, buoyancy is the upward
vertical force pushing you toward the surface. The horizontal resistance of water is very
noticeable: water is twelve times more resistant than air. Moving through water in any
direction is comparable to walking in a strong wind. A large person's greater frontal
surface area [Editor's note: Now that's a new way to say we're fat!] and natural buoyancy
allow her to experience an especially good workout using the resistance properties of
Exercising in water has many benefits. It can decrease swelling. During
land exercise, there is a tendency for blood to pool in the lower extremities. In water,
the gentle massaging effect of the water's pressure assists the veins with the return of
blood to the heart, making for improved circulation. Even when you're working hard in the
water, you feel refreshed. The body in water cools twelve to twenty-five times faster than
it does on land. But you must remember to drink water during your workout. You don't
realize you're perspiring when you work out in water.
Shallow-water exercise, a low-impact option, is popular at most pools
offering water exercise programs. Shallow-water exercise is low impact, because you
have contact with the bottom of the pool. For large people, it's best not to bounce or
rebound off the floor of the pool, because that impact will still be fairly high. I'd
suggest wearing cushioned water shoes for protection (even tennis shoes). If you're
uncomfortable or unsure of your water skills, a well-taught shallow-water class is a great
place to start. The water level should be between your waist and your chest. If the water
is too shallow, you'll feel more impact on your lower body, and it will be hard to use
your arms effectively under water. If the water is deeper than midchest, you may find
you're always on your tiptoes trying to reach the floor. Posture is very important. You
want to use your abdominal muscles, not your lower back muscles, to move. Stand straight
and keep your shoulders over your hips. Use your legs in an athletic stance (legs apart
about eighteen to twenty-four inches, knees slightly bent) to give yourself a good base of
Shallow-water exercise provides great opportunities for toning and
cardiovascular conditioning. And it's fun! Our bodies are so light and graceful in the
NONIMPACT WORKOUTS: DEEP-WATER EXERCISE
Deep-water exercise classes are the ideal choice for a nonimpact
workout. The water needs to be deep enough (usually six feet or more) to keep you from
brushing your toes along the bottom of the pool. For comfort and safety, some type of
flotation device or buoyancy aid is helpful. In deep-water classes, the entire body is
immersed, except for the head and neck, so the upper and lower body muscles work
simultaneously against the water's resistance. The body is free to move in any direction,
at any speed. This impact-free environment makes it easier to try a longer exercise
session. In deep water, you are free of gravity. Without a bottom or stable base of
support, the stabilizing muscles of the trunk and the pelvis have to work more
aggressively to control movements. This strengthens abdominal muscles and helps create a
stronger network for the back. Again, good posture is the key to good results. Aerobic
exercise is achieved primarily by using the largest muscle groups of the body. In
deep-water exercise, you're using your trunk and your lower and upper extremities for a
total body exercise experience.
Whether you're in shallow or deep water, working with equipment can add
variety, fun, and challenge to your workout. Specially designed water gear enhances
resistance. For example, when you push a beach ball under water, you have to push against
the buoyancy of the water. If you're using a buoyant hand-held device, such as a hand
buoy, or wearing buoyant ankle cuffs, you must push against the water over and over again.
Wearing webbed gloves on your hands allows you to work harder against the horizontal
resistance of the water. The glove increases the surface area of the hand in the same way
that a fin increases the surface area of the foot. When the surface area is increased, the
intensity of the movement is also increased.
Most of us experience some hesitation when we're about to try something
new. The obstacles vary. For some, it might be anticipating wearing a swimsuit in public.
But I know that those of you who've been reading Radiance for awhile are already
out there in your suits or are getting close to donning them! Taking a swim class with a
friend is always a good way to begin. Not only will it be more fun for you, but you'll
have one each other's support.
The primary roadblocks large women encounter when they start an exercise
program more often have to do with the facility itself or with the attitude of the staff
than with the actual experience of being in the water. It's best to visit a facility and
get a feel for the dressing rooms, take a good look at the pool, check out parking.
Ask if you can observe a class that you're interested in, or meet with
the instructor. The more information you have, the less anxious you'll be the first day of
class. I'm more than happy to meet with potential students. It's important to be able to
communicate with the instructor about your goals and your experience - for example, what
does or does not feel good to your body? You and the instructor must be able to work
together to find that best ways for your body to move in the water.
Here are some things to look for in a good water exercise instructor:
- She is genuinely concerned that your time in the water is enjoyable and
effective for you.
- She is comfortable with her body and accepting of yours.
- She considers each participant's goals as she conducts the class.
- She describes and demonstrates the movements so that they are easy to
follow. She communicates the purpose of each movement.
- She adapts movements for different body types and needs.
- She varies the routine to keep it interesting.
- She is available before or after class for your questions or comments,
and she's a good listener.
- She is open to your input about any words she uses or ideas she shares
that are offensive to you as a large woman, or to other students.
- She is able to give you feedback in a kind and caring manner.
- She enjoys teaching the class and connecting with the students.
People of all ages and sizes can teach water exercise, and there are
many educational programs available for instructor training. The Aquatic Exercise
Association in Florida is one group which offers a comprehensive water-based certification
program, as well as workshops and conferences around the country. They also produce an
excellent newsletter and have books and videos for sale. Their membership is open to water
enthusiasts as well as to instructors. Contact them at 941-486-8600.
Hydro-Fit trains instructors internationally. If you are interested in
teaching, call us at 800-346-7295. We can also connect you with Hydro-Fit instructors in
your area and send you a free catalog of water exercise gear. Or write to us at 1328 W.
2nd Ave., Eugene OR 97402. I'm always happy to hear from large women who have found their
way into the water! ©
CHRISTINE CRUTCHER is a member of the Hydro-Fit education team and
actively promotes size sensitivity and acceptance through her Ample Opportunities lectures
for water fitness instructors at regional and national conferences. She lives in Eugene,
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