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New workout programs show that pools can attract exercisers of all ages

Some believe water-based workout classes are usually social hours for the elderly. But the young, old and everyone in between can benefit from a strenuous dip in the pool.
By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sean Stephens hasn't told his friends he does water aerobics. "I guess until now," the 36-year-old joked last week as we wiggled into the pool at LivingWell, the health club at the Washington Hilton.

Only a few weeks ago, the runner and triathlete had never considered doing anything other than laps in the water. But a nagging knee injury persuaded him to take the plunge, and after 45 minutes of tuck jumps, sprints and breaststroke arms, he was ready to make it part of his weekly routine. "I actually got my heart rate up," he says.

That probably comes as no surprise to the senior women out there who tend to be water aerobics stalwarts. But they're not the only ones who should be reaping the benefits of buoyancy and water resistance (12 times as great as that of air!), which provide an unparalleled environment for low-impact cardio and strength training.

"Water is magic," says Laura Ribbins, who's one of the world's leading authorities on aquatic exercise -- perhaps because she's based in the Cayman Islands, where water workouts are possible year-round. I ran into her at the DCAC fitness convention in Alexandria last month, where she was presenting sessions on how to lure baby boomers to water classes with super-athletic moves. As great as water is for older bodies, she recommends it for "anyone who's into fitness."

Unfortunately, the quality of aqua instruction has generally lagged behind that of other classes, which has contributed to the misconception that you can't get a good workout in the water. And the tendency of water workouts to turn into senior citizens' social hour hasn't helped their reputation, either.

That's why Teri Bothwell, director of group exercise for Washington area gym chain Sport & Health, has a new mission for its pool programming: "Get it out of old-lady mode." Over the past year, the club has toyed with a series of new workouts. By far the biggest hit has been Aqua Zumba, the latest offering from the Latin-dance-inspired exercise company. "Putting that in the water is just golden," Bothwell says.

Thanks to back-to-back scheduling at Sport & Health's Falls Church club, packs of students rush from the dance studio to the pool to keep grooving for an extra hour. The lesson the club has gleaned from this is that landlubbers will find their sea legs if they're eased into it with concepts they already know. So they've also welcomed classes such as aqua karate ("It's slower paced, a lot of core, a lot of balance," Bothwell says) and aqua bootcamp (set up as a circuit with exercise stations).

Next month, the McLean location will also dive into Water in Motion, a program designed to standardize and elevate water aerobics instruction. Launched last October at two clubs in the Midwest, it's now taught in 35 across the country. The company that licenses the program to clubs says that wherever it has been offered, class sizes have grown and median ages have dropped.

Although the Washington region hasn't officially been introduced to the concept yet, Water in Motion's choreographer happens to be Connie Warasila, a nationally recognized trainer who works for Sport & Health in Virginia.

"So I try stuff out on my students here all the time," says Warasila, who explains that each class has essentially the same structure. It starts with cardio, moves on to isolated muscle groups for targeted toning and ends with a cool-down inspired by yoga, Pilates and tai chi that promotes flexibility.

One problem for instructors is seeing what their students are doing beneath the surface. So cheating -- not pushing as hard as you can, not moving your feet correctly, etc. -- is common, albeit often unintentional.

To combat that, Warasila strives to provide cues for which body part should be feeling the burn during every exercise. "I really try to get my students to learn to move the water -- not through the water -- and lift with more strength by recruiting more muscles," she says. Her secret to keeping it entertaining is changing up the steps and adding social components, including kick lines and partner exercises.

Tara Davis, the 30-year-old instructor at LivingWell who persuaded Sean Stephens to try water aerobics, has a similar style during her anything-but-wimpy interval training classes. To make it more of a challenge for her fitter students, she relies on an array of aqua accessories, such as webbed gloves that increase resistance and foam dumbbells that help mimic land-based strength exercises.

"This thing is a workout," says class regular Dawn Debus, 36.

And a smart one at that, adds Davis. "For a healthy young person, it's a good complement to a [high-impact exercise] routine," she says. "I do a lot of high-impact activities: running, kickboxing. I worry what my body is going to feel like when I'm 60."

In other words, doing water aerobics as cross-training now will prevent her from being limited to only water aerobics later.

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