(Editors' Note: This article was part of Club Industry's June 2019 "Making Space for Recovery in Your Health Club" report. You can download the full free report here.)
Just add water. It's a phrase that's gotten a bad reputation for its association with instant food preparation. But for health clubs, adding water is a fundamental method of staying on top of training methodologies and systems in today's fast-changing fitness world. Research shows that aquatic exercise and therapy consistently deliver positive results. Adding water in the form of a pool can give health clubs a much-needed edge.
What's the best method of recovery after a demanding training session? This issue is intensely debated. Three studies of varying types of athletes show how beneficial aquatic exercise is to recovery. Not only did the athletes recover faster with aquatic exercise, but they also had fewer negative symptoms associated with recovery.
A study from the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport monitored Australian football players during post-game recovery and found that pool walking was rated the most effective and preferable strategy compared to contrast baths, stretching and rest. Another study investigated recovery after an indoor cycling session. One group performed aquatic exercise and the other was assigned rest. The results showed that aquatic exercise facilitated cardiovascular recovery and less perceived fatigue compared to the rest group.
In a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, a group of well-trained triathletes performed a HIIT running session. They were divided into two groups: a swimming-based recovery group and a rest group. Twenty-four hours after the swim, both groups (swim and rest) ran a time-to-fatigue run. The running performance of the swimming-based recovery group was better than the rest group. The authors of the study hypothesized that the hydrostatic properties of the water helped reduce inflammation.
When the research is combined with personal preference, it is widely accepted that aquatic exercise is an effective, engaging and enjoyable method for recovering from strenuous training sessions. Improving one's ability to recover from exercise translates to higher levels of fitness.
For active people of all ages, hip and knee issues can limit or prevent one from performing specific exercises, activities and sports. Although no age group is immune, the one group most impacted are those with osteoarthritis (OA). Individuals with hip or knee OA are often caught in a cycle of increased pain, swelling, loss of strength and loss of joint range of motion (ROM). Land-based exercises, performed to increase strength, often cause increased pain and swelling, creating further loss of joint ROM. When inactivity is prescribed in an attempt to decrease pain and swelling, the results include more weakness and ultimately decreased independence with walking, squatting and running.
Aquatic exercise is an effective alternative. Numerous studies have proven that aquatic exercise decreases pain and swelling, and improves flexibility, aerobic capacity and leg strength. The Cochrane Review found that the main benefits of aquatic exercise for individuals with knee and hip OA are decreased pain, improved independence and improved quality of life.
The most frequently injured body part is the lower back. Use of a pool challenges the muscles needed to support and stabilize the spine while the buoyancy of the water helps decrease pain. When the water depth is at shoulder height, an individual is only 10 percent weight-bearing. This translates to a less compressive load on painful vertebrae, joints, ligaments and tendons for the spine.
It is a misconception that aquatic exercise is not challenging and does not engage the core (lumbopelvic-hip girdle) musculature. A study in Physical Therapy showed that muscle activity for the core was similar on land and in water, but pain was twice as likely to be reported with land-based exercises compared to water-based exercises.
The pool offers the ability to exercise instead of rest. Active recovery is the preferred method for injury rehabilitation. When health club members have the ability to continue exercising in a pool, they see little need to suspend or even terminate their membership.
Matt Weissbach has more than 17 years of experience working with active people of all ages and athletes from grade school to professional level. His areas of clinical interest are pre- and post-operative rehabilitation, aquatic rehabilitation and return-to-play testing. Weissbach also has worked as a consultant for Endless Pools, Shuttle Systems and Intel. He has spoken at national and international conferences and symposiums. He received his doctor of physical therapy from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences and is a contributing faculty member there.