PT on the Net Research

Beat the Heat with Water Fitness


For most of us, the beginning of summer means the beginning of hot, sticky days. Summer is an excellent time to introduce land people to the water, so they can maintain their workout regimes and not sweat (as much). Under normal conditions, the body's natural control mechanisms adjust to the heat via sweating. But in extreme heat, these mechanisms may not help sufficiently. Relief can be found in the pool!

After surveying land fitness enthusiasts, it has been discovered that the top reasons for not trying pool programs are because people 1) are non swimmers, 2) don't want to change into a bathing suit; and 3) don’t like the chemicals usually found in pools.

Here are some considerations about aqua training that you may want to tell prospective group exercise clients:

  1. You don’t have to be swimmer to partake in water fitness.
  2. You may wear suplex or polyendurance fabrics (shorts and tank top) instead of a bathing suit.
  3. That some pools are changing to a saline solution, which makes your skin feel 10 years younger and is not abrasive like other chemicals.
  4. It is a great total body workout.
  5. It is excellent core abdominal work when you maintain a good body positions.
  6. You can sweat without showing it.
  7. It is enjoyable for all levels and abilities!

Water fitness professionals are now doing ALL land modalities with an invigorating twist! With aquatic fitness, you can offer a variety of programs such as: 

  1. Aquatic Step Programs
  2. Sports Conditioning
  3. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi
  4. Total Body Muscular Conditioning
  5. Rejuvenating Stretch and Relaxation
  6. High Energy Cardio
  7. Abdominal Strengthening and Stabilization

So how do you get your land-based clients to trial a pool workout? Try one of the following strategies:

  1. Offer a free or specialty water cycling class.
  2. Introduce a Water Fitness 101 class.
  3. Put videos/DVDs in gym where members are working out on machines.
  4. Create flyers to hand out with information on the “benefits of water fitness.” This can be found on the www.waterart.org web site.
  5. Team teach with a POPULAR land instructor.
  6. Offer personal trainer sessions specific to the water.
  7. Offer specialty programs specific to the water (arthritis, prenatal, kids, Parkinson's).

How Hot Weather Affects Your Body

People who work out on land need to know that exercising on humid or hot days puts additional stress on the cardiovascular system. Physical activity and air temperature combine to increase body temperature. The heart rate and blood pressure elevates, and the body may feel fatigued before the start of the program.

Working out in hot or humid conditions may greatly overstress the body’s thermal regulation system, which may result in problems such as heat cramps, dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Normal body temperature is approximately 98.6° Fahrenheit (F) or 37° Celcius (C) and body temperatures may vary throughout the day. Additionally, women's body temperatures vary with menstrual cycles, pregnancy and menopause.

Heat stroke can be life threatening. Signs include a hot, flushed and dry look. The person will feel confused and faint and may be vomiting. At the first hint of any of these signs and symptoms, get out of the heat, drink fluids and either get immersed in cool water and/or fan the skin. Always seek medical help.

Pool Temperature

Pool and air temperatures may vary greatly from one center to another on any given day. This range may be from 79°F to 96°F, depending on the facility, clientele or main services. Therefore, ideal temperatures for your clients may not be within your control.

Most community pools or recreation centers maintain a pool temperature that is conducive for both swimmers and aquatic fitness participants. Swimmers prefer cooler water, especially if they are skilled and conditioned, and they can easily generate heat. If the water is too hot, they will overheat in no time. Swimming does not allow for heat to escape as readily as vertical exercise. Consequently, swimmers typically prefer cooler water temperatures below 83°F or 28°C.

Cooler pool and air temperatures may create a lower body temperature; it can lower heart rates and may alter perception of exercise intensity. Even though the heart rate typically lowers by about 10 to 20 BPM as compared to land, the intensity is the same. The water’s cooling effect is especially noticeable when the pool is under 90°F or 30°C.

The recommended pool temperature for cardiovascular training is 83°F to 86°F or 28°C to 29°C. Water temperatures below 83ºF or 28ºC naturally elicit a shivering response, so it may not be ideal for some training situations. It has been researched that at 83ºF, you will need to generate 4.2 METS of energy to thermal regulate or maintain a comfortable body temperature relative to the water temperature.

Participants with arthritis or orthopedic conditions may benefit and feel most comfortable with 86ºF to 90ºF or 30ºC to 32ºC. Rehabilitation or therapy pools typically have water temperatures of 90ºF to 96ºF or 32ºC to 35ºC. This temperature may be suitable for participants of limited capacity or special needs, provided they do not have cardiovascular problems. These temperatures are not conducive for cardiovascular training or for training participants with high blood pressure or cardiac problems because it is too easy to generate heat with nowhere for the heat to dissipate. The key to working in hot pool air temperatures is that ideally there should be proper ventilation of the center, and everyone needs to hydrate frequently.

Optimize Thermal Regulation

Thermal regulation is the ability to maintain the body’s core temperature based on external factors such as air and water temperature, the client’s clothing, body composition, medication and hydration level.

Thermal regulation may be the most important consideration when trying to attract new clients to a pool program. Even in warm weather, some people will feel cool as soon as they enter the pool. Always optimize the pool environment by offering program and/or activities suitable to the water temperature.

Monitoring Intensity 

Target heart rate monitors and/or perceived exertion are good ways to monitor exercise intensity. Research has shown that heart rates in the water are, on average, about 14 percent lower than land heart rates at the same intensity. (However, there may be a range of 10 and 20 beats difference). It is important to help your clients monitor and regulate their intensity through some system (i.e., talk test, rate of perceived exertion (RPE), heart rate monitor). There are a number of variables that affect and limit taking a heart rate measurement; however, heart rate monitors may be effectively utilized as long as your client understands a water measurement may not be similar to a land measurement at the same intensity. Most aquatic professionals have decided that using the perceived exertion scale is one of the best ways for clients to evaluate their intensity level, thereby giving you a reference point from which to work.

Dress for Success

If exercising in an outdoor pool be sure to recommend wearing a hat (and a shirt if necessary). Both items of clothing will help thermal regulate and protect the body from the sun and/or wind. It is also advisable to wear shoes to protect the feet both from scraping the pool floor and from infection. Shoes will also assist walking in the water by providing a larger area of support.

Design Classes Based on Environmental Conditions

It is important that you provide the opportunity for your participants to work at a comfortable temperature throughout the entire workout. For warmer therapy pools, alternate less active muscle work, involving the smaller groups such as the biceps/triceps, with slower cardio sets, involving large muscles such as the quadriceps/hamstrings, so participants do not overheat.

In cooler pools, it may be necessary to keep the lower body moving at all times to thermal regulate (even in warm weather). Combine movement patterns that are easy to balance and generate heat to keep your class active. For example, you may cue to perform upper body resistance sets while jogging for balance and thermal regulation. Cue to accelerate, increase range of motion and resistance so that they may maintain a higher workload.

Incorporate Cardiovascular Training

  1. Focus on using the larger muscle groups of the lower body rhythmically. Walking, jumping, jogging, cycling, kicking and skiing movements will engage the hamstrings, quadriceps and gluteals rhythmically
  2. Always change planes of movement regularly or prior to muscular fatigue because water training has 12 to 14 times the resistance, and typically the muscles fatigue prior to the breathing.
  3. Create range of motion and resistance appropriate to the client. Try to utilize more range of motion prior to speeding up the movement. It is so easy to become a water exercise cheat and move quickly and just fatigue the muscles (via isometric contractions) and not really work the cardiovascular system.
  4. Think about utilizing the arms for assisting balance and travel of the body. You need the arms to maintain your body position and posture.
  5. Monitor intensity with RPE, talk test and heart rate monitor (only shallow water works for heart rate monitors).
  6. Encourage everyone to do his or her personal best. Let them do the amount of repetitions and speed they need to get the most out of their training.
  7. Utilize interval training. Since the muscles fatigue quicker in water as compared to land, it is more effective to do either discontinuous sets or continuous sets for more total work and energy expenditure.
  8. Realize that training in the shallow water provides more lower body loading and hence may be a harder workout than deep (for CV training)
  9. Shallow water training may utilize 10 to 50 percent lower body loading or vertical impact, depending on water depth. Choose wisely as your client may not need the added stress.
  10. Deep water training has zero percent vertical stress or joint stress. Clients need to have good technique and muscle strength as well as a buoyant belt (that keeps their head above the water) to be successful.
  11. Progress your program to aquatic steps, which are a progress to shallow water.
  12. Progress your deep water programs to buoyancy cuffs or training fins.
  13. Add tethers to provide top level athletic performance.

Exercise intensity will vary based on the following factors:

Following the guidelines and recommendations listed here will ensure your clients experience fun, safe AND highly effective aqua workouts!