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Water Walking Works

Research shows that hitting the pool can provide a wave of (effective) exercise fun.

Person water walking

Did you know that science has established that low cardiorespiratory fitness is an independent predictor for cardiovascular disease and all causes of death (Haynes et al. 2020)? The good news is that even a small improvement in aerobic capacity has been shown to decrease mortality from cardiovascular disease. But not all land-based exercises that improve aerobic capacity work for all people! For some older people and those at risk for falls, water-based exercise programs and water walking are a good option. That’s because of the lower gravitational forces and reduced impact on the skeletal system.

What does the research say? Len Kravitz, PhD, professor and program coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, shares two studies that add power to the decision to add water walking to your fitness routine.

Land Versus Water Walking

There’s very little long-term data on how cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition are affected by water walking versus land walking, but Australian research teams Haynes et al. and Naylor et al. (2020) investigated this topic. Their study findings are published in two publications: the Journal of Sport and Health Science and the Journal of Science and Medicine and Sport. Diving into the details adds to our understanding of the benefits of water workouts.

A Deeper Look

The researchers recruited 72 older men and women volunteers (average age 62). All participants were relatively inactive (<60 minutes of purposeful physical activity per week). Participants were randomly assigned to 6 months of water walking, land walking or no additional activity (the control group). Investigators tested maximal aerobic capacity and body composition change as the main outcome variables, and they measured these at the beginning of the study and after the 24-week intervention.

There were three supervised exercise sessions per week. The water walking took place in chest-deep water heated to 28–30 degrees Celsius (82–86 degrees Fahrenheit), while the land walking occurred on flat, paved ground and grass terrain outdoors.

Exercise intensity increased over the course of the study. The second session each week was an interval workout with 1-minute work intervals at that week’s specified intensity alternating with 30 seconds of rest. Over the 24 weeks, the interval workout changed to 2-minute work intervals (at the week’s specified intensity) alternating with 2-minute recovery intervals.

See also: Water Workouts Make a Splash

Results: Thumbs Up for Water Walking!

Maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) improved equally in both exercise groups—about 4% as compared with the control group. That’s important because your VO2max shows how well your heart and veins push blood to your muscles and the rest of your body. Knowing your VO2max can help you measure fitness and heart health improvements over time.

An improvement of this kind of VO2max is an indication of a meaningful improvement in heart health. As your VO2max increases, you become an overall healthier person. Researchers also saw a significant difference in body composition in the percentage of trunk and upper-body fat.  Both walking groups also saw a significant decrease in visceral fat, the fat pattern associated with major diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance).

Interestingly, the water-walking group showed a significant improvement in lower-limb lean muscle mass. Researchers propose that this may be because water walking may offer a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise.

The bottom line is that water walking is as effective for health as land walking is. It’s a safe option for many older people—and those at risk of falls—to consider.

Attention Fitness Pros!

Please share this page with your clients, and let us know what other topics would be most valuable to them. Send your Handout ideas to Judy Minich at [email protected]

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