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Water Workouts a Great Alternative: Study

Water Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Working out in water can give you just as intense a workout as doing so on land, new research revealed
  • Benefits of water workouts include increased flexibility, less wear and tear on your body and built-in resistance training
  • When you exercise in water, your heart rate will be lower than on land, even if you’re exercising very strenuously, so you need to listen to your body, not rely on heart rate, to gauge when you’ve had enough
  • Water exercise will also dramatically lower stress on injured joints and allow you to decrease your risk of joint injuries
  • The ideal water to use would be ocean water, which will not only ground you but is also free from chlorine, fluoride and disinfection byproducts of chlorine (DBPs), which are 1,000 times more toxic than chlorine
  • Swimming pools typically contain chlorine, and along with it, disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which have been linked to cancer and respiratory effects; working out in a non-chlorinated pool, ocean or other natural body of water may be preferable to a chlorinated pool

By Dr. Mercola

If you're tired of your workout routine and want a change of pace, moving your workout to the water may offer some unique benefits.

While you might think you can't actually get as intense a workout in the water, new research found that's not true at all, and in some ways a water workout may be better than one on land.

Benefits of Water Workouts Revealed

After measuring workout intensity levels among people exercising on a stationary bike on land, and one designed for use in a pool, researchers found that the aerobic intensity was the same.

However, while working just as hard, those in the water had lower heart rates, because the pressure of the water helps your blood circulate more effectively with fewer heartbeats.

According to the American Council on Exercise, your heart rate will be reduced by as much as 17 beats per minute compared to land exercise,1 so be sure to keep this in mind if you measure your heart rate to watch your intensity.

When you're in the water, your heart rate will be lower than on land, even if you're exercising very strenuously, so you need to listen to your body, not rely on heart rate, to gauge when you've had enough.

The study, which was presented at a meeting of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, also found that the water-based workout caused less wear and tear on your body, making it an ideal alternative if you have trouble exercising on land.

When you exercise in water, you have to support only a fraction of your body weight compared to on land. In fact, the water reduces your weight by about 90 percent!2 This means the stress on your weight-bearing joints, bones and muscles is greatly reduced, lessening your chances of injury or sore muscles.

Plus, the water acts as a form of built-in resistance, as though you've surrounded your body with weights, making it simple to increase the intensity of your workout and challenge muscles you might not on land. Also, because water lessens the effects of gravity, you're able to move your body through a wider range of motion, which is an ideal way to improve your flexibility. Even your lungs get a beneficial workout, as the water pressure makes them work harder than they would on land.

If you are overweight or obese, elderly, have arthritis, joint pain, osteoporosis or an injury that makes weight-bearing exercise on land difficult or painful, a water workout may be for you.

Working out in Water: Important Caveats to Consider

If you decide to work out in water, keep in mind that land-based exercise is still important to get weight-bearing benefits (the kind that will help strengthen your bones and prevent bone loss and osteoporosis). Another important consideration: swimming pools typically contain chlorine, and along with it, disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which are formed when bromide, naturally existent in the source water, and/or organic materials like hair, skin, sweat, dirt and urine react with the large amounts of chlorine used to sanitize the pool water.

DBPs are over 1,000 times more toxic than the chlorine itself and have been linked to DNA damage and cancer. In one study, more than 100 DBPs were identified in pool water, and when researchers measured evidence of genotoxic (DNA damage that may lead to cancer) and respiratory effects on swimmers who swam in a chlorinated pool for 40 minutes, they found:3

  • Increased micronuclei in blood lymphocytes, which are associated with cancer risk
  • Urine mutagenicity, a biomarker of exposure to genotoxic agents
  • An increase in serum CC16, which suggests an increase in lung epithelium permeability

This is a serious issue if you swim in chlorinated pools on a regular basis, as your body absorbs higher levels of DBPs by swimming in a chlorinated pool once than you would by drinking tap water for one week! In fact, in one study on trihalomethanes (THMs), one of the most common DBPs, found the cancer risk from skin exposure while swimming comprised over 94 percent of the total cancer risk resulting from being exposed to THMs!4 The authors even went so far as to conclude that swimming in a chlorinated pool presents "an unacceptable cancer risk."

As an aside, DBPs are also the likely culprits for the increased incidence of sinusitis and sore throats among swimming instructors,5 as well as the negative impact of chlorinated pools on the respiratory health of children and adolescents. In fact, one study found that in children with allergic sensitivities, swimming in chlorinated pools significantly increased the likelihood of asthma and respiratory allergies.6

This doesn't necessarily mean you have to give up swimming. Swimming in an ocean is an excellent alternative, as is swimming in a lake or other natural body of water. You can also find a way to keep your pool clean from bacteria, algae, and other organisms without the use of dangerous chemicals.

One of the best solutions is NOT to chlorinate your pool and just use a maintenance "shock" treatment every five or six days, which will kill the algae buildup. The shock treatment volatilizes in about 24-48 hours and gives you a several-day window in which you can safely use your pool. You can also reduce the amount of organic material you bring into the pool, and thereby the amount of DBPs created, by showering prior to entering and teaching your children not to urinate in the water.

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Using Water After Your Workout Also Beneficial

Have you ever felt just fine immediately following your workout, but within 24 hours, you start to feel pain? This is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and for some, this discomfort is enough to make you think twice before going back to the gym or engaging in activities you would otherwise enjoy.

Immersing yourself in a cold-water bath 24, 48, 72 and even 96 hours after exercise appears to be significantly more effective than rest in relieving delayed-onset muscle soreness.7 Cold water immersion, or "cryotherapy," is thought to help reduce muscle inflammation and pain after exercise. It works by lowering the damaged tissue's temperature and locally constricting blood vessels. Cold also helps numb nerve endings, providing you with instant, localized pain relief.

So, if you want to relieve sore muscles following an intense workout, you can try spending 20 minutes or so in a cold tub of water (10-15 degrees C, or 50-59 degrees F). If you don't like the idea of full-body cryotherapy, you can also try a more targeted approach by applying a cold pack to a specific area of your body. While this won't give you full-body relief from muscle soreness, it can be beneficial for an injury or a pulled muscle.

+ Sources and References
  • Study presented at a meeting of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, Toronto, Canada, November 6, 2012
  • MedicineNet October 31, 2012