Take the plunge

Man in swimming pool

Whether you’re an exercise novice or a super-fit athlete, a non-swimmer or a Channel swimmer, a water workout will do you the world of good. Katherine Bletcher jumps straight in.

In 1930, a marine biologist called Alister Hardy theorised that our ancestors were more aquatic than previously imagined. His idea was controversial and dismissed by many scientists but, while I’m not going to start debating theories of evolution, as a self-confessed water baby I can’t help thinking that I know where Hardy was coming from.

I feel so at home in the water that I rather like the idea that my ancestors got to spend a lot more time in it than I do. And it seems I’m not the only one: more than five million people in England alone swim more than once every four weeks.

But even if swimming isn’t for you, there are plenty of other activities that will lure you into the water, getting fit and having fun, as I discovered when I went along to an aqua aerobics class.

On Wednesdays, Southbury Leisure Centre in Enfield, north London, plays host to an over-50s day. Southbury is part of a group of leisure centres run by Fusion Lifestyle, a charitable organisation that supports local authorities in getting the most out of their leisure facilities. It’s based in London, but luckily there are similar organisations up and down the country.

The over-50s days run across a number of centres and for a nominal fee, participants can take part in a range of activities including swimming, yoga, Pilates, gym sessions and fitness classes. There’s also the chance to socialise over tea breaks and lunch.

What it can do for you

  • It gives you a good cardiovascular workout, gently increasing your pulse and breathing rate, so it’s great for helping to improve your heart health.
  • It strengthens and tones muscles – the resistance of the water means that opposing muscle groups are worked in each movement as you push and pull against it.
  • It improves flexibility, while the support of the water greatly reduces the risk of muscle and joint injuries.
  • It’s a great stress reliever – the water massages and cools you, giving you a feeling of weightlessness and an enormous sense of wellbeing.

Most pools have aqua aerobics classes. Ask at your local leisure centre or council for details of classes near you.

Pool moves

When I arrive at the leisure centre, the aqua aerobics class is in full swing and around 30 people are bobbing up and down in the water in time to the music.

As I slip into the pool, I immediately get that wonderful feeling of weightlessness that being in the water gives you. I take my place in the group and watch the instructor, Maria, who’s showing us the moves from the side of the pool.

"You’re exercising lots of different muscle groups in aqua, so it’s a great all-round workout"

The first thing I notice is that it’s impossible to do the moves in the water as fast as Maria’s doing them. That’s because water is about 12 times more resistant than air, so you have to work a lot harder to do the same movements. That said, because the water supports you, you don’t put any strain on your body, which is why aqua aerobics is great if you’ve got problems with your joints or muscles.

The moves we’re doing are very similar to those you find in a normal aerobics class, like star jumps, sideways lunges and lots of jogging back and forward. Roger Biss, 61, who runs the over-50s day, is working out next to me. “Lots of people in this class wouldn’t be able to do jogging out of the water because it would have too big an impact on their joints, but it’s not a problem in the water,” he says. “You’re exercising lots of different muscle groups in aqua, so it’s a great all-round workout. But you’re not over-exerting anything, which is particularly important for the older age group.”

Double the benefits

Aqua aerobics class

By this point we’ve got foam ‘weights’ in the water. They don’t actually weigh anything until you push them under, when they suddenly become extremely heavy. It’s hard work, and there’s lots of laughter and shrieking as we struggle to keep the unruly weights from popping out of the water.

Whereas with land-based exercise you might work one muscle group at a time, in the water you always work the opposing muscle group as well, so you get double the benefit for the same effort. For example, if you’re doing a bicep curl then you have to use your triceps to pull the weight through the water on the way back down.

By the time we’ve finished with the weights my arms are burning. “It’s harder than it looks, isn’t it?” laughs Roger.

Why we love it

Here’s what a few of the water workout fans had to say:

Manu, 64: “I’ve been doing aqua for four years and I think it’s the best exercise because you don’t hurt yourself. I’ve got arthritis and it really helps with that. Aqua makes you feel good; it makes you feel light. I never want to miss Wednesdays.”

Ashoke, 69: “I started coming because I wanted to reduce my blood pressure, and I’ve had both knees replaced so swimming and aqua aerobics are good for me. After you’ve done it, you feel fresh.”

Shân, 67: “I haven’t done aqua for a while, so I struggled to keep up with all the changes in movements at first but I really enjoyed it. I always feel fit when I’ve come from here. It makes me feel really good.”

Andy, 65: “I started exercising to get my blood pressure down and I usually go to the gym and walk, but it was my first time at aqua. I thought it was going to be cushy – but it wasn’t. You get the impression that if you’re doing stuff underwater it will be easy, but you’ve got a force you’re pushing against. I’d do it again.”

Something for everyone

After the class, we gather in the meeting room for tea and a chat. I have that lovely feeling of inner warmth you get after you’ve been in the water, and my body feels like it’s worked hard but without being strained.

“I love it – it gives me a high,” says Vera, 75. “When you’ve been swimming, you look forward to the rest of the day. I used to do aerobics and Pilates, but I’ve got a few problems with my hips now so Roger thought water-based activities would be better. I’ve got high blood pressure and angina, so I don’t want to give up exercise.”

"When you’ve been swimming, you look forward to the rest of the day"

So is there anyone who shouldn’t do aqua? “We always get people to check with their GP if they do have any medical conditions, but I haven’t had anyone yet,” says Roger. “And aqua’s great whatever your fitness level because you can do as much or as little as you like. The big advantage if you’re overweight and just getting into exercise is that your weight’s supported so you can do much more in the water. It also has that feel-good factor and the support of a group environment.”

It’s a rare exercise class than can cater for mixed abilities and I can vouch that it’s no piece of cake for fit people. I have to admit that I thought I’d find it too easy, but I’m certainly feeling the effects after pushing myself on all the moves. One person who agrees with me is Alan, 65, who tried aqua aerobics for the first time today. Alan wants to stay fit so he can keep up his hobby of racing driving, and keep down his blood pressure and improve his cholesterol levels.

Aqua aerobics class 2 “Lots of people pooh-pooh aqua, but if you think about the mechanics of anything in water then you know it’s going to be hard,” he says. “I haven’t swum for a long time and I had forgotten how great it is being in the water. As soon as I got in I thought, ‘why don’t I do this more often?’”

And that’s exactly the thought that I’m left with, especially now it’s winter and going outside isn’t so appealing. Being in the pool is good for much more than your physical health – it gives you a sense of wellbeing that’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. There’s a naturalness and other-worldliness that you feel in the water that you don’t get from anything else, and a sense of weightlessness and grace that you don’t feel on land. Aqua aerobics makes this feeling accessible to everyone, even those who can’t swim – so go on, take the plunge!

Read more about staying active

What if I can’t swim?

Roger Biss, who runs the over-50s day at Southbury Leisure Centre, says: “You don’t have to be able to swim to do aqua. You just stay by the side and in shallow water, and you can even have a buoyancy aid if you like.

In fact, it’s actually a very good first step if you want to learn to swim because you’re in a managed situation with an instructor. It’s a myth that only children learn to swim. We run swimming classes for adults and you would be surprised how many people are signing up for them.

A lot of older people can’t swim or have had frightening experiences because the old school way of teaching was shoving you in the deep end, and you’ve got people still living that. Everybody can learn.”

If you have a heart condition, check with your doctor before taking up new exercise.

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