Health & Wellness

Water Exercise: A Cool (and Easy) Way to Exercise

By Diana Duda

For many people with MS, few things go together better than exercise and water, especially during the hot summer months. “Why?” you may ask. Water provides buoyancy and thus support that the participant wouldn’t have in a land class. As a result, there is less fear of falling.  What is the worst thing that could happen if one goes down in the water class? Hair gets wet perhaps?  With the use of flotation vests, buoyancy belts, buoys and noodles, this usually isn’t a problem.

And of course, the body stays cool and the participant doesn’t have to be concerned with becoming overheated, which can cause those awful MS symptoms to flare.

So what are some other benefits?

As the water helps hold up participants, they are able to accomplish exercises they might not be able to do on land. Because of water’s viscosity (it provides 12 times the resistance that working on land does), just walking through it provides resistance and helps build strength; and strength is a good thing, able-bodied or not. This often eventually leads to building strength and flexibility on land. Whoopee! 

In the water, each participant can work at the level that best suits him or her at any particular time. By changing the length of a lever (kicking from the knee as opposed to a straight leg kick); moving with or against the water (inertia); adding equipment to create drag, provide further resistance, or provide buoyancy; or changing water depth or tempo, participants can personalize their workout.

Making a splash

If one were to visit the class that I instruct three times weekly, they would notice several things: The deck area is a parking lot of wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, and canes. Some participants use the chair lift to get into the water, some need help down the stairs, others simply walk into the pool by themselves, and a few enter from the pool side.  A few wear a Wet Vest, others may use a buoyancy belt, some use noodles or buoys for balance, and yet others need no aids. 

Since class size averages from 18 to more than 25, getting everyone into the pool takes awhile. Participants start a set of warm ups either alone or with friends as they chat. A few who may be having a more difficult day may just go to the side of the pool and do their own stretches or warm up. Some have aides or a family helper while others work independently. The main idea, however, is that once everyone is in the water, the playing field is leveled.

About a third of the way through the class time everyone is called to the middle of the pool, where class announcements are made and we proceed to stretch and warm up together followed by whatever activity I have planned. If class participants have been having balance issues more than usual, I may concentrate on that area. If weather and moods have been gloomy we may turn to games with the beach ball. I simply may have chosen to work arms, core, or cardio as our major area of concentration for the week. Regardless, at this point we work together as a class.

The final part of the class is a cool-down with specific exercises ending with independent stretches done with noodles at the wall. Sometimes the group then floats with noodles, flutter kicks, or works specific areas needed by each.

Choosing words wisely

What may stand out with our class compared to other classes is our choice of words. Several concepts are not allowed. Participants are not allowed to talk about their “weak” or “bad” side.  Instead, they have a “good” and a “better” side. Since the “better” side knows what to do we concentrate on the “good” side.  Somehow, by calling this side the “good” side, anything seems possible.

At the end of the class stretch, everyone hugs himself or herself and says, “I LOVE ME AND I’M IN GREAT SHAPE AND GETTING BETTER.” Then right fists thrust upward and we shout “MS means MIGHTY SPECIAL!”

Working in the water gives participants a safe environment where they can build strength, flexibility, and confidence.  Swim skills are not needed and overheating is not an issue. The important thing to remember is, as with any exercise program, consistency is the key to seeing results.

Ready to make a splash? Come on in, the water’s fine! The MS Aquatics exercise class at Orland Park Health and Fitness Center in Orland Park, supported by the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. For more information go to

Having spent most of her life involved in the arts, particularly the world of dance, Diana went from being a ballerina to becoming a “Wavedancer” in 2002. After years of being terrified of the water (in spite of growing up at a lake each summer), she now spends three to five hours a day in the pool teaching water aerobics, working with special populations (arthritis, MS, Parkinson’s), and teaching people of all ages water safety and how to swim. Diana is certified by the Aqua Exercise Association and the US Water Federation. In addition to teaching special populations water aerobics, she teaches Watsu and Ai Chi.

(Last reviewed 8/2011)