Are you considering a water fitness program? More people than ever are exploring water exercise programs, and for good reason: Water fitness can improve strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health; decrease body fat; facilitate rehabilitation; improve functionality for daily living; and even enhance sports skills. Water fitness classes today offer more variety than ever before, but how do you find the right class for your goals, interests and skills?

We asked water fitness experts Mary Sanders, MS, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nevada at Reno, and Tatiana Kolovou, assistant director of fitness and wellness for the Division of Recreational Sports at Indiana University in Bloomington. They offered these recommendations for making sure your pool time is spent wisely.

1. Check Out the Facility. Start with the basics, says Kolovou. Look for a clean, safe, well-maintained pool. The water temperature should be comfortable: 82 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit (28-29E Celsius); and there should be a lifeguard on duty–your water fitness instructor shouldn’t have to do it all! Check out the equipment, too. You want to see a variety–for example, buoyancy belts and dumbbells, gloves, noodles and paddles.

2. Look for Professionalism. Ask about the water fitness staff itself. Are the water fitness instructors professionally trained in fitness, not just swimming or lifeguard skills? The staff should be certified in fitness and have additional training in water fitness. Also inquire about the types of water fitness classes available and the results you can expect from each exercise class. If the course descriptions are vague or confusing, ask for more detailed explanations.

3. Know Your Limitations. In general, water fitness is so versatile and safe it is the ideal choice for people with a variety of conditions, including pregnancy, orthopedic problems and arthritis. Before joining a water fitness class, however, always check with the instructor to make sure it will be appropriate for you. Don’t attempt a deep-water fitness class unless you are comfortable in deep water; you can’t rely on a buoyancy device to give you complete confidence!

4. Try a Variety of Water Fitness Classes, and Practice Basic Skills. Remember that all water fitness classes are not alike; training in the water is muscle- and function-specific. Once in the pool, ensure your comfort and safety by learning the fundamentals–for instance,
how to scull for balance (making figures of eight with your hands) and how to recover to a stand, or vertical position, with correct posture.

Your water fitness instructor should encourage you to go at your own pace, and teach you how to progressively increase and decrease the intensity of each exercise. The pool is a liquid weight machine, says Sanders. The harder you press, the more intense your workout is, so you have great control of your exercise program.

5. Know Your Goals. This may be the most important key to having a satisfying water fitness experience, says Sanders. She suggests you look for water fitness classes that focus on some or all of the following, depending on the results you’d like to achieve:

  • Cardiovascular Health and Weight Management. To provide these benefits, a water fitness class should focus primarily on working the legs, using the arms (with webbed gloves on the hands) for balance. Interval water training is the ideal. You should be able to adjust your speed and effort as needed to create a progressive water training program.
  • Muscular Endurance. To improve muscular endurance, a water fitness class should work isolated muscle groups along with the muscles that stabilize the joints and body. Shallow-water jumping, buoyancy devices, an aquatic step, or surface area equipment such as giant sandals (called Sloggers) may be used to add overload.
  • Functional Fitness. If your goal is functional fitness, look for exercises that target the activities of daily living. For example, aquatic step exercise may be the ideal water fitness exercise because it can improve stair climbing, and a program that includes dynamic reaching and leaping can enhance range of motion and flexibility. Your water fitness instructor should teach proper postural alignment for each activity.
  • Sports Skills. Do you want to hone your skills on the court or field? Check for sport-specific drills that will improve your ability to run, jump, change directions, etc.
  • Physical Therapy. If you need rehabilitation, you should seek a licensed therapist for your water fitness program. Postrehabilitation can be conducted by a trained water fitness professional who is willing to work closely with your health care providers and can design progressions to help you regain function.