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Into the Water for Exercise That's Easy on Your Joints

May 22, 2000|Stephanie Oakes

Sun, sand and surf translate into fun water sports, and when the weather heats up, there's no cooler place to be than Southern California.

If you already have a fitness regimen, try adding the low-impact activity of swimming to your routine. Your joints and ligaments will thank you for the rest from high-impact exercise like running and aerobics.

If you're just starting to work out, consider swimming as a way to increase your strength and aerobic capacity.

And after all that, if you still need an incentive to take the plunge, consider that the average swimmer can burn 600 calories an hour in the pool--that's the same number of calories burned by running six 10-minute miles on the pavement or treadmill.

But keep in mind that pulling your body through the water demands a strong chest and midsection. Injuries are most likely to occur when shoulder muscles are weak or out of balance. So, if you've been out of the pool or ocean for a while, build some basic muscle strength in your deltoids (shoulders) before diving in. Try upright rowing exercises, shoulder presses and front shoulder raises several times a week.

When you hit the water, have a goal in mind, suggests Cyndi Gallagher, the women's head swimming coach at UCLA. Sign up for a swim meet at the end of the season, race a buddy to the end of the pool or try to improve your time on your weakest stroke.

Gallagher also suggests breaking up your routine. "Many swimmers swim lap after lap in their favorite stroke," she says. "That type of steady workout is OK, but for [better] form and endurance," she suggests altering the routine.

For example, change your swim stroke to the breast stroke. Or try drills--two laps using just your upper body, then three laps using only the strength in your legs.

Swimming isn't the only great workout in the water. I recently caught up with Mark Anders, one of Southern California's resident wave-catchers, who helps train people in the sport of surfing. He has surfed almost every day (sometimes twice a day) for the past 10 years.

Anders assured me that the best way to learn to surf is to concentrate on the crawl stroke, because that's closest to the actual motion used in surfing. It's also important, he said, to practice distance swimming (important for paddling out to the break) and sprint swimming (essential for the powerful strokes necessary to catch a wave).

Anders also suggests getting hold of a balance board, a flat skateboard deck with a rounded dowel on the base that simulates a front-to-back rock--two popular ones are the Bongo Board and Rolo Board. This will help with balance and the lower-body strength necessary for surfing. You can hop on the board in your living room while watching TV.

Also, he recommends practicing the pop-up move (the sudden move from all fours into an upright position) on dry land to improve muscle memory and help make standing up a smoother transition on a floating surfboard.

For strength-training exercises, try biceps curls for arm strength, regular push-ups for muscles used when popping up on the board, and cardio fitness for the paddle out. Light jogging is good, especially if you've been camped out on the couch for months.

Whether swimming, surfing or engaging in any other water activity, remember to use good judgment. Swim with a buddy, and stay in areas that provide experienced and attentive lifeguards and plenty of safety equipment.

You don't have to be an elite athlete to benefit from--and enjoy--water sports. Improving your fitness level will help to make any time you spend at the beach or poolside this summer more enjoyable. And that's the point, isn't it?

For information on the U.S. Master's swimming organization, which has swimming teams throughout the country, go to or check out your local YMCA for pools and swim teams (

Surfing lessons usually last 90 minutes and cost $35 to $45, board included. Board rental only is about $20 a day.


Stephanie Oakes is a New York-based fitness specialist and fitness editor for Discovery Health Channel. Her column runs on the fourth Monday of each month. She can be reached by e-mail at

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