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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 instructor!

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 students.

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.

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 water.

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 support.

Shallow-water exercise provides great opportunities for toning and cardiovascular conditioning. And it's fun! Our bodies are so light and graceful in the water!


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:

  1. She is genuinely concerned that your time in the water is enjoyable and effective for you.
  2. She is comfortable with her body and accepting of yours.
  3. She considers each participant's goals as she conducts the class.
  4. She describes and demonstrates the movements so that they are easy to follow. She communicates the purpose of each movement.
  5. She adapts movements for different body types and needs.
  6. She varies the routine to keep it interesting.
  7. She is available before or after class for your questions or comments, and she's a good listener.
  8. 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.
  9. She is able to give you feedback in a kind and caring manner.
  10. 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, Oregon.

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