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Meet the Experts: Water for the Mind and Body

Aquatics experts explain how new programs help people of all ages and fitness levels to get more from aquatics programming.

After years of high-impact pounding, the baby boomer generation is turning to lower-impact activities, and a favorite among this set is water fitness. Its buoyancy and freedom of movement allows for an exercise program that is safer on the joints, making cardio and strength training in the water effective for most people. Mind/body fitness in an aquatic environment is another great offering for this population, and for people of all ages. Water's gentleness makes it a perfect environment for relaxation. Soft sounds, warmth and the ability to quiet the mind allows the body, mind and spirit to reap water's benefits. Four experts explain why and how.

Meet the experts

Boo Pfeiffer, designer, developer and owner, Poolates (Pfeiffer Fitness), Key Biscayne, Fla.

Julie See, director of education for the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA), Nokomis, Fla.

Mary Wykle, Ph.D., a certified ai chi instructor and personal trainer

Benefits of water

Pfeiffer has been touting the benefits of water fitness for years. "[It's about] freedom of movement, a break from the constant pressure of gravity," she says. "Warm water, especially, provides for increased range of motion (ROM), and muscle ... relaxation."

Pfeiffer not only loves water for the physical exercises people can perform while immersed in it, but also for the way it makes them feel mentally. "I think part of the reason water is the perfect place for mind/body work is that it provides almost instant spiritual relaxation," says Pfeiffer. "In the water, we have a carefreeness that I don't see as much on land."

See says, "the water surrounds the body, massaging the muscles during movement and stimulating our sense of touch, and making us aware of our body's free and fluid responses to stretching. The water increases comfort level for many balance-related activities, such those performed during yoga, Pilates or tai chi, [since] the fear of falling is eliminated or greatly reduced. At the same time, the resistance of the water challenges our stabilizing muscles to work harder even during simple activities [such] as standing with tall, upright posture or walking across the pool."

Pfeiffer agrees: "While the buoyancy of water makes water exercise gentle on the body, fighting the buoyancy in order to stay stable and make precise, controlled movements is what makes Poolates so challenging."

Wykle approaches mind/body fitness from the water. Based on the movements of tai chi, shiatsu and watsu, ai chi is an aquatic mind/body exercise that allows for progressive movements involving the entire body. "It's soothing and it works all meridians of the body," Wykle says. "It's a combination of deep breathing, slow, broad movements and an inward focus." In ai chi, as in Poolates, the breath should control the movement, but, as in most classes, the students mimic whatever the instructor is doing. That's okay, however, because Wykle says there is a saying in ai chi: "However you do it is the way it ought to be done."

Creating the environment

Creating an environment that enhances water fitness is imperative. Just as you would not want clients to meditate in a cold room, you would not ask clients in the water to relax without appropriate water and air temperatures. The gentleness of the mind/body classes means that while there is movement in the water, the movement is designed to be primarily ROM and strength based, not to increase the heart rate. "Ideally, the water temperature would be 86 [degrees] or higher," says Pfeiffer. "But, it also matters how warm the surrounding air is. So, an 86-degree pool doesn't do much good in a 70-degree room - it's still chilling because of the differential. Conversely, 83- or 84-degree water can be safe enough for the movements if the surrounding air is in the low 80s, as well. Especially at the beginning levels, much of the Poolates work is done standing in waist-deep water, so the upper body can feel chilled." If this is impractical for your facility, there are ways participants can be more comfortable. "I recommend that for cooler water/air situations, participants wear a rash guard or do a water warm-up," says Pfeiffer. "This is not a substitute for warm-enough water, but, if the water has to be 84 [degrees instead of] 86, a warm-up can help keep the workout comfortable and safe."

There are some high-intensity movements that can periodically be incorporated into a Poolates class. Pfeiffer says these high-intensity movements don't interfere with the mind's ability to relax for two reasons: "First, the movements are still precise and require concentration and control, so the mind needs to remain fully engaged; and second, feeling cold is not relaxing - people tense up when they get cold - so warming up enhances the relaxation experience."

When the water is cooler than preferred, Wykle uses faster-paced music. "We usually use an ai chi symphony, which is music with no beat," she explains. The beat influences the heart rate and the breath, and, in warmer water, it's not preferred. However, in colder water, faster music is needed to stay warm.

Another big issue with setting the mood for a mind/body class in a pool environment is providing an environment where people can concentrate. "People tend to like to socialize in water classes, so limiting conversation is helpful," says Pfeiffer. "But water is also innately fun, so a light tone is really nice, especially to put newcomers at ease." It can be a delicate balance.

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Instructor training

Many may feel that following the trends of aquatic mind/body fitness is just a matter of putting a class on the schedule, but that can't be further from the truth. "We take very seriously the fact that the majority of the population of water exercisers tends toward the more fragile members of the general population," says Pfeiffer. "Exercises offered ... without proper background and training for the instructors are not often in the best interest of the exercisers."

Adds See, "It is imperative that any fitness professional (training clients, teaching group exercise or offering therapy/rehab) utilizing the water as an exercise modality [is] properly trained for liability reasons, as well as ethical considerations. There are additional safety concerns in the water that [are] not encountered in the exercise studio, such as the potential for drowning, increased risk for slips and falls, environmental concerns that alter program design (such as water and air temperature and quality), special considerations for pool entry and exit, and the altered muscle action encountered in a buoyant, reduced-gravity environment. Safety must come first in any health, wellness or fitness program, otherwise we defeat the purpose of the activity. Certification specific to aquatic fitness through a reputable nationally/internationally recognized organization ... teaches the differences between land and water training. One cannot simply throw a land-based program into the pool and expect it to be safe, effective and enjoyable."

Pfeiffer sums it up by saying, "[Exercisers] all deserve to have instructors who are trained in what they are teaching. Participants in group [exercise] or personal training deserve, as a matter of safety and wellness, to have educated instructors."

A plan for success

Water can be the perfect place for mind/body exercise, as it has a calming effect, and offers balance and buoyancy for people who have difficulty exercising on land. However, before offering water-based classes, make sure you have the proper environment and the proper instructors. Success can only come with careful planning that includes safety, results and fun.
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