From the Archives: Summer 2004 Lupus Now magazine
Water World: Low-impact exercise reaches new depths
by Emily Wojcik
As a long-time resident of Hot Springs, AK -- home to Hot Springs National Park -- Louise Scott has long enjoyed the curative benefits of a relaxing soak in the nearby mineral waters. But after a lupus flare in 1996 (followed by a back injury that winter), Scott discovered that being active in water is equally beneficial -- for both her body and her mind.
“At that point, I couldn’t function well physically, and my sister introduced me to an aqua aerobics class for people with painful or stiff joints and similar problems,” Scott says. Seven years later, she’s still hooked. “It combines flexibility and strength exercises, but it’s easier on my joints than regular exercise. If it weren’t for the water therapy, I’d be in a wheelchair.”
Scott is definitely onto something. “Aqua aerobics is probably the best exercise for patients with lupus,” says Terry Moore, M.D., director of rheumatology and pediatric rheumatology at St. Louis University. “Because it’s performed underwater and not against gravity, it’s a safe way to improve muscle tone and maintain an ideal weight.”
A warm pool -- about 83 to 85 degrees, standard for an indoor pool -- also helps increase circulation, while the buoyancy of the water relieves stress on joints. Water’s natural resistance lets you boost your heart rate (the faster you move, the higher the resistance becomes), meaning that you can control the intensity of your workout.
Getting the heart pumping can be especially important for people on steroids or other medications. “Long-term treatment for lupus can lead to increased cholesterol, weight gain and other side effects, which aerobic exercise can help prevent,” says Moore, who cautions that novices should check first with their rheumatologist or internist and start slowly.
“The great thing about water aerobics is that the exercise is slower than traditional aerobics classes,” adds Anne Ericson, a water exercise instructor at the Recreation Center in Ridgefield, CT. “Several of my students have lupus, and they can do a lot more in the water than they can do on land.”
Ericson, who has taught exercise classes for more than 20 years, also speaks from personal experience: She began leading water aerobics classes after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago.
You don’t have to be part fish to reap the benefits of aqua fitness. In fact, you don’t even have to know how to swim. Most classes take place in the shallow end of the pool -- and many offer flotation devices to help students perform complicated moves.
“Usually we start with just walking, letting the pool’s natural resistance provide a warm-up,” says Ericson. “Then we’ll do knee lifts and walk on our toes and on our heels. We follow that with wrist circles and then work other upper-body parts, like arms and elbows.”
Ericson recommends finding a certified instructor who is willing to adapt his or her class for people with limited mobility. “Don’t let anyone -- including yourself -- push you too hard too fast,” she says. “Just go at your own speed.”
Going slowly also means you can take advantage of an often-overlooked side benefit of this low-impact workout: the friend factor. Ericson says her water exercise class is one of her most popular, since her students can work out and socialize at the same time.
“We have a saying that ‘fatigue begets fatigue,’” adds Moore. “People who participate in physical activity with others are less likely to suffer from depression.”
Just ask Louise Scott: “Mentally, water aerobics helps me a lot,” she says. “It’s a great way to find companionship -- and that keeps me coming back if I ever feel like giving up.”
To locate an aqua fitness class in your area, contact your local YMCA or recreation center.