AEA Exclusive! Water Exercise: You Can Melt Away Pounds
Background: Research on the relationship between aquatic fitness programs and weight loss is still in its infancy. Until recently, most studies of aquatic exercise have examined swimmers and have focused on metabolic responses or have made comparisons with land exercise programs (Almeras et al., 1997; Kieres and Plowman, 1991; Flynn et al., 1990). Other studies have focused exclusively on older populations exercising in the water (Taunton et al., 1996: Ruoti, Troup, & Berger, 1984).
Perhaps most damaging to the reputation of aquatic fitness programs as part of a weight loss program have been studies that examine effects of cold water on the body and level of calorie expenditure (e.g., Sheldahl et al., 1982). Cold water studies have consistently found that people burn fewer calories in cold water. However, the water temperature for this kind of study is much colder than the 83-86 F (28-30 C) temperature recommended by the Aquatic Exercise Association for aquatic exercise.
One reason for the fact that few in depth studies have focused on water exercise is the high cost of equipment needed to obtain the same kinds of metabolic, intensity and other physiological data that is typically recorded in studies of exercise out of the water. In addition, because vertical exercise in the water is a relative newcomer in the exercise industry, studies have only been systematically undertaken for the past two decades. Gaspard and his colleagues (1995) found that an aquatics step program improved the body composition and aerobic capacity of college aged women. Some very promising research on aquatic exercise is currently being conducted in Brazil and Portugal, but none has examined weight loss over time directly.
In the aquatic exercise industry, most instructors and other fitness professionals hear numerous stories about people they know who have lost weight as a result of water exercise, cross training with the water and land exercise and dieting. AEA decided to develop a survey to collect information that would give a better picture of how aquatic exercise is used in weight loss programs and by whom. The first survey was administered in the summer and fall of 2006. This article reports the results of the first survey administration.
Survey participants were sought by aquatic exercise instructors from among aquatic exercise class participants. Although the majority of respondents volunteered to take the survey after hearing about the topic, a few participants were deliberately sought because instructors were aware that they were using the aquatic medium as part of their weight loss programs. Since the intention of this survey research was to examine the use of water exercise over time as part of a weight loss program, surveys from people with fewer that 8 years of aquatic exercise experience were not included in this study. A few other surveys could not be used because of missing information (e.g., length off time in water exercise, number of pounds lost, etc.) Three men and 43 women provided the information reported in this article.
Results: All respondents had participated in aquatic exercise for at least eight weeks. The average age of the women who responded to the survey is 59; the age range of female respondents is 28 to 86. The three male respondents were ages 60, 78 and 83. The average amount of time exercising in the water for all respondents is 2 years (24 months). A few people have been water exercise participants for quite a bit longer; there were two people who have been exercising in the water for 12 years. The person with the longest length of time in aquatic exercise has been active for 18 years.
Only one of the people responding to the survey was not trying to lose weight. Of the three men surveyed, two were trying to lose weight and one was not. His information was retained because of the relatively few men who participated in the survey. All of of the 43 women were not trying to lose weight.
Diet: Respondents were asked about purposefully dieting in combination with exercising. 70% of the women were dieting (32). Eight women were following doctor-prescribed diets, 7 women were following their own diet plan, and 17 women were dieting using a commercially available diet plan. Of the plans that were specifically asked on the survey, 13 were following Weight Watchers program, 2 followed Jenny Craig, and 2 followed South Beach. None of the women reported using the Atkins Diet. None of the men reported dieting at all.
Exercise Type and Intensity: One man and 18 women (41% of all respondents) reported participating exclusively in water exercise. One man and 14 women (33% of all respondents) indicated that they started their program with water exercise, and later, began to cross train with other forms of exercise. The third male respondent and five of the females said that they participated in a combination of water and land fitness activities from the start of their exercise programs. Nine women indicated that they first exercised in land-based fitness programs and then changed to aquatic fitness programs.
Although almost all of the respondents said they exercised for 45 minutes or an hour each time they worked out, the types of aquatic fitness classes that respondents participated in varied quite a bit. Almost two thirds of the respondents (28, or 61%) reported taking aquatics aerobic classes; most of these people also participated in other kinds of aquatic classes, including deep water exercise, interval and specialty programs, such as abdominal classes. 7 of the women indicated that they participate in aquatic arthritis classes only; 3 of them only exercise in the water and 4 cross train.
In terms of intensity of their workouts, 91% of the respondents reported that they exercised at a moderate level of intensity (26 women and 2 men), a hard level of intensity (12 women and 1 man), or both (1 woman). Only one woman reported working out at a light intensity level. All respondents exercise several times each week. 16 women and 1 man said that they exercise 2-3 times a week, 19 women exercise 4-5 times a week, and 2 men and 8 women exercise more than 5 times a week.
Results and Conclusions: Women and men who were trying to lose weight through exercise did so, with or without a calorie reduced diet. In general, ongoing participation in water exercises results in greater weight loss. Of 43 women who were trying to lose weight, the average weight loss was 34 pounds. Weight loss among women ranged from 6 to 142 pounds. (Interestingly, the women at these two extremes had been active in aquatic fitness programs for the same amount of time, one year.) It is important to note that the three women who reported the lowest weight loss began their program within ten pounds of their target weight. The two older men in the study were also trying to lose weight; one lost 20 pounds and the other lost 48 pounds. The percent of total body weight loss ranged from 4% to 47%.
A small positive correlation was found between percent of weight loss and dieting. This may indicate that exercise is the more important factor (versus dieting) in weight loss. Of those people who dieted, most followed the Weight Watchers program or followed a program supervised by a doctor or a nutritionist. This kind of diet program, which is oriented toward life style change in diet habits over time may be more compatible with long term exercise programs that some of the “quick weight loss” diet programs.
Among these survey respondents, there is a relationship between weight loss and length of time participating in exercise up to a point. It seems likely that respondents reach their weight goals and continue their exercise programs for weight maintenance.
Limitations and Future Research: This study only included 46 respondents. Of these, only three were men. This is not enough men to draw any conclusions about men and water exercise as part of a weight loss program. The survey should be repeated with a larger number of people. Future survey research should be careful to include only people who have target goals for weight loss. Starting weight should be controlled in data analysis because the more weight one has to lose, the more one can lose. Also, future surveys should document how long it took respondents to reach their target weights.
This type of study, survey research, depends on participant self-report for the information used. Clearly, more experimental research on the contribution of aquatic fitness programs in weight loss needs to be conducted. Experimental research is the most powerful resource for documenting the relationship between aquatic fitness programs and weight loss.
Survey respondents were asked if they could be contacted to follow up on this research and a majority agreed and provided contact information. At the time of this writing, an e-mail and telephone interview schedule is being set up for those who agreed to be contacted. This will be an opportunity to clarify some of the assumptions made about the data that was reported. A follow-up article is planned.
Summary: This research contradicts what many people are told about the benefits of water exercise in a weight loss program. Many physicians, therapists, and exercise specialists have a misimpression about the potential weight loss benefits of water exercise. In part this is due to the nature of early studies on aquatic exercise; the most widely known of these focused mainly on swimming or on metabolic responses to cold water. Aquatic professionals need to share current research, such as the results of this survey research, with these professionals to help them understand the potential benefits of aquatic fitness programs as part of systematic weight loss programs.
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About the Author:
Paula S. Krist, PhD – is active in AEA’s Research and Education Advisory Councils and looks for opportunities to motivate people toward aquatic exercise. An assessment specialist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Paula supports AEA’s efforts to consistently improve the quality of instruction through assessment.
Article found at www.aeawave.com