Water: A Vertical and Horizontal Fitness Tool

Date:  Apr 30-2009

Water is an incredible resource for fitness because it simultaneously provides buoyancy and resistance.  Water exercise works for everyone, every body and every ability level.  Whether or not you are flexible, conditioned or unconditioned, in or out of shape, overweight or right on target, workouts adapted to water can accommodate your needs.

I distinguish aquatic workouts by two types: vertical and horizontal.

Vertical workouts are those that are done without actually swimming; rather, they are done from a standing position in the pool and use the water’s resistance to its full advantage. I call these W.E.T.S.®, for “Water Exercise Techniques.”

Horizontal water workouts are actual swimming exercises.

This column will highlight examples of both forms of aquatic exercise.


Many people are aware, of course, of yoga, tai chi and pilates. What most do not realize, however, is that these can all be applied to water as great methods of relaxation and exercise.

Yoga: By adapting traditional yoga poses in water, we can maximize the benefits of the pool environment and get the best workout possible. For example, the Child’s Pose is a wonderful exercise for the lower back, and very well suited for the back when adapted because you hold onto the edge of the pool to complete the pose. The Mountain Pose offers a great stretch and facilitates relaxation through breathing. When you feel comfortable with the more basic poses, you may find the Sun Salutation more challenging. This sequence of adapted poses offers a variety of stretching and strengthening moves while still maintaining the focus on breathing.

No matter which poses you prefer, your yoga workout should abide by the same rules of thumb as would any exercise regimen. Check with your doctor before starting a routine. When you exercise, always start with a warm-up session and finish with a cool-down session, even if your workout is as short as 25 or 30 minutes. As you become more physically fit, you can increase your workout intensity with the FIT principle: Frequency, Intensity and Time.

Tai Chi: Water tai chi consists of exercises that incorporate many movements and concepts from land tai chi. The most challenging aspect of water tai chi – as with land tai chi – is mental, not physical. Once the mental techniques are mastered, it will help in daily life, in such areas as concentration and stress management.

There are many types of tai chi exercises that can be performed in water, including the tai chi forward ands backward walks (stretches and strengthens ankles; strengthens legs); tai chi opening (strengthens and stretches the entire body); circle water spray right (strengthens entire body and stretches sides of torso, ankles, buttocks ad hips); roll the ball (strengthens arms, wrists and shoulders); hands like clouds (also strengthens arms, wrists and shoulders); yin yang (strengthens shoulders, forearms and wrists); full moon (stretches and strengthens shoulders and arms) and tai chi closing (stretches and strengthens entire body).

Pilates: Pilates focuses on the torso, since all movements start here and flow to the extremities. Strengthening and balancing the torso prepares the body for the rigors of daily life.

Water pilates is designed specifically for an aquatic environment to combine the benefits of land pilates and exercising in water. It includes some synchronized swimming figures and unique exercises.

Water pilates always begins with The Hundred breathing exercises to warm up the muscles and increase blood flow, and always ends with Rolling Down the Wall, which is used to cool down the muscles and cement positive postural and alignment changes that are made during practice. Pilates exercises include leg circles, ballet legs, tub turn, scissors, corkscrew, spinal twist, leg crossover, clam, mermaid/merman, leg kicks, single leg stretch and rolling down the wall.


Swimming is the closest thing on earth to a perfect sport. It exercises all the major muscles of the body; it’s the inexpensive, fun, social, graceful, sensual, safe, gentle way to achieve fitness—and it’s an activity you can enjoy for a lifetime.

Swimming is a tremendous aerobic exercise that helps your heart, blood vessels and lungs. If you do it regularly and vigorously enough to raise your heartbeat to 70 percent of its maximum rate for half an hour or more, your cardiovascular system, will gradually grow stronger and more efficient.

Specific benefits of swimming include:

— Building of stronger, firmer muscles. Swimming is the single best exercise for toning your arms, shoulders, waistline, hips and legs all at once.

— Increased flexibility. Swimming’s long, sinuous motions, along with the increased range of movement that your body has in the water, actually elongate your muscles while strengthening them,.

— Weight reduction. Swimming burns calories and raises metabolism.
— Aid to physical therapy. Water’s buoyancy makes swimming an excellent therapeutic exercise. It gradually and gently relaxes and rehabilitates muscles and joints that for one reason or another have atrophied or stiffened.

A sometimes overlooked aspect of swimming is that is can be quite varied and, thus, never gets monotonous. There are numerous variations of the four basic competitive strokes: crawl or freestyles, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. During a workout, you can do each stroke while pulling (using only the arms) or kicking (just the legs), or swimming (using arms and legs). You can swim against a clock or at your own pace, and for any distance. You can try equipment such as fins, kickboards, hand paddles and pull-buoys.

A good swimming workout should include three components: a warm-up, a main set and a cool-down.

The warm-up is necessary because swimming strenuously without preparing your body beforehand can result in injury, poor performance and discomfort. The warm-up should comprise about 15 percent of your total workout time or distance, whichever is greater, but should never be less than five minutes. It can begin in the water with stretching and water exercises, and then can move to swimming – slowly, with an easy, relaxed stroke.

The main set should constitute approximately 75 percent of the workout, and is the most strenuous part. It usually involves a series of swims varying in stroke and distance, with brief intervals for rest.

The main set is followed by the cool-down, which should be about 10 percent of the total workout, or about half the distance of the warm-up. The cool-down allows your body to relax after the rigors of the main set. The cool-down should consist of several easy, relaxed laps and perhaps some post-swimming stretching exercises in the water and/or on land.

Whether you choose vertical or horizontal aquatic exercise – or both — water can truly be a magical elixir to help you become or remain fit at any age.

Dr. Jane Katz, a member of the U.S. synchronized swimming performance team at the 1964 Olympics, is a pioneer in fitness and aquatics. She holds a doctorate in gerontology and was a consultant to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. She is an educator, author of several books and a professor of health and physical education at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. More information on the exercises mentioned in this article can be found in Dr. Katz’s books, “Your Water Workout” and “Swimming for Total Fitness,” from Random House Broadway Books, and on her DVDs, “The W.E.T. Workout®” and “Swim Basics.” All can be purchased at bookstores and on Dr. Katz’s website, www.drjanekatz.com.


By Dr. Jane Katz
Apr 30, 2009