The Fat Girl's Guide to Water Aerobics
Posted by Angela in Health + Beauty
Keep your head above water in aqua class (image by The Udall Legacy Bus Tour)

Exercise and I have never been good friends. Like many fat girls I’ve met over the years, my gym class experiences were always a torment, and I gravitated toward friends who were more likely to pass time playing cards or watching 90210 reruns than starting a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. Between the sweat, the beet-red face, and the fact that every movement was a struggle, most workouts I’ve tackled as an adult have been faced with gritted teeth and an eagle eye on the clock’s second hand. So when I skeptically accompanied a new weight-loss friend to her fitness center several years ago, I expected to grind through my guest-pass meetings with both treadmill and trainer before scampering back to the safety of my couch – or at least my Tae-Bo videos and closed blinds.

The minute we walked into Galter Life Center, however, the smell of pool chlorine greeted me like an old friend. As a direct result of my Pavlovian response to water of any kind, I walked out of the gym that day with a membership contract and began working out regularly. But for some reason, I never set foot in the pool – the very thing that sold me on joining -- until last Friday. Years after previously abandoning my membership and gaining back the weight I’d lost, I put every fear and excuse aside and joined my best friend in the pool for my first-ever water aerobics class . . . and it was love at first splash.

Good for what ails you

Unlike land-based exercises where you support your entire body weight (and the accompanying impact on your joints) during your workout, water-based workouts provide cardio, strength and flexibility training opportunities without placing the same stress on your body. The resistance of the water actually increases the effectiveness of the workout while cushioning and supporting your body. A 200-pound woman will burn an average of 360 calories during an hour of water aerobics; for a 300-pound woman that number skyrockets to 540 calories. And because you’re surrounded and supported by the water, there’s no way to fall or land awkwardly during a movement.

Best of all, if sweat is one of your workout nemeses, grab a pool noodle and rejoice: You can’t tell that you’re sweating in the pool, and the water provides a cooling effect. It takes almost nothing for me to get red-faced and overheated, but I flipped, kicked and lunged through the entire routine feeling refreshed even though my heart rate was up and my muscles were warm.

Anything but a beauty contest

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that many water aerobics participants tend to be older or overweight, likely because of the benefits described above. The obvious upside to such a demographic is that no one really stands out. Our class involved approximately 15 participants of varying ages and sizes. My friend and I were definitely the youngest in the pool, but there was no awkwardness, and everyone was too busy focusing on his or her own balance and technique to spend much time watching others. Another perk: once you’re chest-deep in the water, only the instructor can really see your lower body or movements. Unlike some aerobics or step classes I’ve taken where I’ve felt conspicuous because of my weight – despite being fully clothed – this setup didn’t make me feel self-conscious at all.

Look, ma – I’ve got stamina!

Because I’ve managed to get myself into pretty rotten shape, one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t be able to complete a full 60-minute class, much less keep up with the pace and the intensity. Sixty minutes on a treadmill or elliptical would kill me. So imagine my surprise when I still had energy, breath and strength left after 20, 40, 50 minutes of water exercise!

Like traditional land-based aerobics, we never did any one movement long enough for me to burn out. Instead, the instructor (who – bonus! – was a down-to-earth woman of about 30, with a normal figure and no ridiculous cheerleader schtick) led us through a variety of alternating sets from her position on the pool deck. Accompanied by her own mix of cardio jams (pretty decent except for that awful “Mambo No. 5”), we warmed up for 10 minutes with marches, kicks in front, kicks to the corner and travels left and right.

When the workout picked up, Instructor Megan was careful to model and remind us of ways to raise or lower the intensity of our movements with each new action. Almost every movement included a variation that allowed for more limited range of movement. Lessons learned: Jumping jacks are easier in the water. Reversing momentum (beginning to walk backward when you’ve previously been traveling forward) is far more challenging than it looks. “Rocking horse” movements are as baffling as they sound. Your butt and hips don’t jiggle when you run or jump underwater. And moving into deeper water will increase the water resistance, and therefore a movement’s level of difficulty.

What surprised me most was that the cardio portion was a breeze compared to the challenge of working with the aqua barbells, which we received about 35 minutes into the hour. Although arm movements like pushing the water out or down had been incorporated all along, the added resistance of holding down the floaty barbells during the same motions was more than I expected. By the time our 15 minutes of barbell work (which included several movements to target the abs while floating with arms to our sides) was completed, I was ready for the 10-minute cool down and stretch. I left the pool feeling tremendously accomplished and my muscles continued to feel nice and well-used for the next 48 hours.

Dress the part

There’s really no way around the fact that water aerobics = swim-friendly attire, which is what kept me from suiting up until now. My approach to swimming tends to involve as much covering as possible. Swim dresses with skirts. Over-sized t-shirts on top. I haven’t owned a skirt-free suit in 15 years. After listening to me make excuses about how the skirt would float up or my girls would pop out for an unapproved guest appearance, my best friend wisely told me to shut up and try on one of her higher-necked, skirt-less suits from Longitude. (I hate it when she’s right.)

The no-frills one-piece I wore to the pool covered my butt and boobs completely, while allowing full range of motion. Best of all, I actually think it was more flattering on me than any of the skirted looks I’ve sported in the past several years. The straps were wide and the neck was high, which is a must if you’re large-chested; you want to be able to focus on your movements and breathing, not about whether you’re over-exposing yourself. If one-piece suits aren’t your thing, a tankini that stays put and allows movement would work well, also. I threw a pair of swim shorts over my tank, but probably would omit them next time, because they bunched up between my legs during the cycling and cross-country skiing motions. Above all, wear what makes you comfortable, confident and able to move freely. And if you’ve got long hair, secure it in a ponytail or pigtails so you’re not messing with it during the workout. (Note: At no point were we asked to put our heads under water.)

Be sweet to your feet

Water may be forgiving on joints and muscles, but you still need to be conscious of your form. Try to avoid spending the whole class standing and landing on the balls of your feet. Not only will using  your whole foot work your muscles more effectively and prevent injury, it's also less likely to cause calluses and blisters. To minimize irritation from repeated contact with pool tiles and grates, consider purchasing aqua socks; for better stability, upgrade to water shoes.

Don't be afraid to shop around

Like any type of workout, one size doesn't always fit all. Most gyms will offer multiple aqua fitness classes to suit different levels of ability and intensity. Some classes focus more on cardio, others on strength conditioning or stretching. Believe it or not, the class I jumped into was a high-intensity class (hello, ego boost!) that the center calls Aqua Blast. (Consider this a road-tested late addition to our Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Superhero!) Several gyms have hopped onto the current Zumba craze and offer Aqua Zumba, water aerobics with a Latin dance flavor.

Whatever class you choose, remember that you control your own tempo and pace. If a movement demonstrated by the instructor is too "big," you can always adjust to something that feels more comfortable, or just kick your legs or march in place until the next move.

Going rogue

If the local gyms don't fit your needs, comfort level or checkbook (I'm still turning over couch cushions for change to fund a membership), there may still be a way to get your water aerobics fix. Girls lucky enough to have a pool of their own (or a friend who will share) can create a water routine using imagination and/or resources like DVDs, aqua barbells or weights from retailers such as WaterWorkOut. The same can be done in a community pool or, during the summer, in a lake or other local body of water. Everyday household items like empty milk jugs can be used in place of barbells, or you could just grab a $3 pool noodle and start kicking. Even walking laps during open swim at your local YMCA/YWCA will provide cardio and strength benefits.

As for me, I'm wishing I hadn't wasted so much time psyching myself out of an activity that feels like such a natural fit for a water-loving girl. Don't follow in my 'fraidy cat footsteps, ladies -- dip your toe into an activity that you've previously only wondered about. It might turn out to be the fitness "aha moment" you've been waiting for.

What do you love about water aerobics? Have you wanted to try but held back? Or waded in then decided it wasn’t for you? Tell us in comments.