Need a New Workout? Just Add Water

Working out in water is a good way to keep the heart healthy

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Dennis O'Clair / Getty Images

Not feeling the StairMaster today? Consider taking a dip in the pool. Working out in water can provide nearly the same aerobic benefits as sweating it out on land.

In a small study presented at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, researchers from the Montreal Heart Institute monitored 22 healthy individuals as they worked out both on stationary bikes on land and on an immersible ergocycle–the water-logged version–in chest-high water. The cycling regimens got progressively more intense until the participants reached exhaustion. Overall, the scientists found that the cyclists gained practically the same aerobic benefits from working out in the water as they did breaking a sweat in the gym.

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To assess how participants improved their exercise and aerobic capacity, the researchers looked at their maximum oxygen consumption, or VO2max. They found that when the participants cycled in the pool, their VO2max was about 80% of their VO2max on land. While exercising in water, the volunteers also recorded lower heart rates than on land.

“What was exciting was that the cardiovascular system appears to be more efficient during exercise in water,” says study author Dr. Anil Nigam. “For a given exercise intensity, heart rate was lower in the water, but for every heart beat, the heart pumped out more blood. Therefore the heart is more efficient during water exercise.”

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The researchers say this is partly due to the hydrostatic pressure of water, which increases blood flow from the body’s extremities back to the heart. Nigam says that during water exercise, there is an “unloading effect” of the water on the limbs, which makes exercise easier on the joints. That’s why water workouts could benefit people with joint problems like those suffering from arthritis or obesity, and now, it turns out these folks may be getting a better heart workout as well.

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The American Heart Association (AHA) encourages people to aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day for better heart health. And for those who find that goal a challenge, the cardiovascular benefits of working out in water might be a good option.