How to Start an Exercise Program in the Water


We all know that we should exercise. As we age it becomes more and more important and when we have a problem in our muscles and joints or in our spine, exercise becomes a primary method of preventing pain and disability. On the one hand when you have most types of musculoskeletal pain, it is important to exercise. On the other hand often it hurts to exercise and there is fear of making the pain worse with the exercise. Water may be the place to start.

There are a few conditions that warrant a trip to your primary care doctor before you start a water program: if you have a seizure disorder of any kind, if you have a neurological problem such as multiple sclerosis and for certain heart conditions. You should get your doctor’s clearance before you begin. Also, if you have any open wounds and infection you should stay out of the water until they are healed. If you have the flu or any other infectious disease, wait until you are well to begin as water exercise might infect others who use the pool and may prolong your illness. If you cannot control your bowel or bladder, the pool is not a good choice for you.

Once you’ve made up your mind to try, the safest way to begin a home exercise program is in a pool where you can walk in at least waist deep water. Almost any pool that is available to you will do: Community, YMCA, apartment complex, or private pools can be used with benefit. Plan to begin at least 2 and preferable 3 days a week. Allow an hour and a half. Walk in the water at any comfortable speed. Let your arms float and let your arms help you naturally. This natural “swimming motion” will increase your range of motion of the upper body. Begin by walking for five minutes (use a stop watch or exercise timer) and stop and rest for ten minutes. Repeat this sequence. Walk for five minutes/rest for ten minutes; walk for five rest for ten. Always walk for five sessions (beginning and ending by walking) and rest for four sessions. During your first session you will have walked for 25 minutes, during the hour and five minutes you are in the pool. While you are resting, you may sit on the side of the pool, lean on a pool float, etc. When you complete your walking for the fifth time, you simply get out of the pool and go home.

Now how does this look in real life. Let us say that you arrive at the pool at 1:30 PM and begin. You walk from 1:30 -1:35 then rest from 1:35-1:45; walk from 1:45-1:50 then rest from 1:50-2:00; walk from 2:00-2:05 then rest from 2:05-2:15; walk from 2:15-2:20 then rest from 2:20-2:30 then walk from 2:30-2:35 and get out of the water. During week two you add one minute to your walking and take one minute from your resting during each session. You arrive at 1:30 and walk from 1:30-1:36 then rest from 1:36-1:45; walk from 1:45-1:51 then rest from 1:51-2:00, etc. During each subsequent week, you add an additional minute to your walking sessions and take one minute from resting periods. At the end of six weeks, you will be walking for ten minutes and resting for five minutes during each session. This will give you fifty minutes walking during an hour and ten minutes at the pool. This is adequate to build your strength and stamina and increase your range of motion and flexibility and should be continued at this level.

In the water your weight is dramatically reduced, putting less strain on your spine and joints, and enabling you to perform stretches that otherwise might be difficult on land. Also, walking against the resistance of the water will dramatically increase your muscle mass compared to walking against the resistance of the air. Your pace will naturally increase as you become more fit and confident, your natural balance will be improved and falls during normal activities will become less likely. If you can go more often do so, but do at least three sessions at a given level before proceeding to the next level.


© Dr. Moacir Schnapp and Dr. Kit Mays