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April 28, 1991|KATHLEEN DOHENY | Doheny is a free-lance health writer based in Burbank

Howard Barsky loved his tap-dancing class, but he wanted variety in his exercise routine. So one night Barsky decided to join his wife, Nina, in her exercise program--an aquatic workout.

Barsky took it easy, splashing through the warm-up moves and jogging gently in the water. Slowly, he followed the instructor's lead in exercises meant to tone the hamstrings, quadriceps and other muscles. He relaxed and breathed deeply during the cool-down. Before the hour was up, Barsky was hooked on aqua training.

Two years later, the West Los Angeles couple suits up twice a week and heads for the Beverly Hills YMCA to participate in a "Water Power Workout."

"I find that my upper body is much stronger than before," says Howard, 60, an advertising manager for a retail store. Adds Nina, 55, a staff assistant at a local college: "After an hour, we have exercised every part of our bodies."

What the Barskys discovered about aquatic exercise is no news to many elite athletes, recreational runners, fitness walkers, arthritis patients, pregnant women, senior citizens, children and a host of others.

Exercising in water is not only fun and soothing, but it's productive, too. A single session can build aerobic endurance and tone muscles. Those who can't swim also can jump right in, thanks to shallow-water routines and flotation devices designed for deep-water workouts.

Water exercise--or aqua training--is booming, advocates claim. "I see it as the exercise of the '90s," says Lynda Huey, a Santa Monica kinesiologist who developed the "Water Power Workout" to help clients regain their strength.

"In the '60s, it was tennis," she says. "In the '70s, it was running; in the '80s, aerobics. In the '90s, it will be water." Statistics suggest that Huey may be right.

In 1986, there were 500,000 "vertical" aqua exercisers--a record-keeping term for water exercisers who don't swim. By 1988, there were 2.2 million, estimates the American Fitness Assn., a Durango, Colo.-based nonprofit organization. Last year, the number had grown to 4 million, reports Dr. Jean Rosenbaum, the group's president.

Advocates cite a number of attractions for the activity. Exercising in water minimizes injury risk. When an exerciser is submerged to neck level, the gravitational pull on the body is reduced by about 90%. This low-impact milieu, advocates claim, is especially good for arthritis patients, overweight exercisers and those recovering from injuries. Exercising in water keeps the body cooler, so it's often an option for pregnant women, who are especially advised not to permit themselves to get overheated during exercise. And it's more comfortable for everyone. Individuals can work at their own pace, since water provides its own built-in resistance: The harder you push against it, the harder it "pushes" back.

Exercising in water, done with proper effort, can burn as many calories as high-intensity workouts on dry land. "For a typical person, a water workout can provide the same or better aerobic benefits as one gets with running, and perhaps more so," says Dr. Robert Bielen, an Irvine orthopedist who prescribes such exercise for some of his patients. "But you have to be willing to exert yourself, not just float."

The number of calories burned varies, depending on intensity, body weight and other factors. "The more muscle groups you use, the more rapidly you can achieve an aerobic effect," says Bielen, who chairs the Sports Medicine and Science Committee of the men's U.S. Olympic water polo team.

Exercisers haven't always taken to aqua training like, well, ducks to water. Lynda Huey first designed a water routine for track-and-field stars recovering from sprained ankles and other injuries. She recalls: "Most of the athletes I worked with didn't want to come near the water." That was in 1983. She suspects they considered it a "sissy" workout. But as their bodies began to crave exercise, they decided to give it a try. In the process, they got hooked. Since then, such sports teams as the San Francisco 49ers have incorporated water workouts into their training routines.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Skeptics suggest that water's cooling effect on the body keeps the heart rate down at a level that makes workouts less effective at burning fat than other routines. Advocates counter that exercisers who work hard enough can burn plenty of fat.

Water exercise doesn't compare in popularity with such activities as walking, which now claims 20 million U.S. devotees. But it's gaining more than a toehold. Considering the minuscule risk of injury from low-impact water workouts, perhaps more exercisers should consider it, the AFA's Rosenbaum says.

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