Everybody into the Pool

It’s summer. If you want to do more than splash around, here are some water workout tips for you.

By Steve Kaufman | Illustration by Adam Kleinert

To the fitness instruction world, you’re a “health seeker.”

If you’re anywhere from your late 30s through your 50s, and you’re seeking to get back in the gym or the pool, you’re categorized. (Clearly, that age category is bendable – from the 20-something who’s rehabbing a sports injury to the senior looking to stay active.)

You’re anxious, enthusiastic, unboundingly willing – and, left to your own devices, you’ll probably overdo it. Or you’ll run out of steam, get discouraged and quit.

Give yourself an A for intentions, but probably a D+ for results.

Swimming has become perhaps the most popular form of fitness workout. After all, you already know how to swim, don’t you? Most people do.

“Actually, a lot of people come in and think they know how to swim, but they really don’t,” said Adam Johnson, senior aquatics director at the Northeast Family YMCA in Lyndon in Louisville. “People get in the water, and if they don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll spend about 10 minutes in there and get tired, get discouraged and never come back.”

So, if you’re thinking of starting a swimming-for-health program this summer, start by acknowledging you might not be that strong a swimmer.

The problem, said Johnson, is breathing. “The cardiovascular effort in swimming is different than that of running or cycling, because you have to hold your breath for certain lengths of time. So you do one length of the pool and you’re out of breath. We get that a lot.”

It’s not uncommon for triathletes – runners and cyclists in good condition – to come into the water and be blown away by how quickly they become out of breath.

exsp_5_illustration_swimmer“People of a certain age who get into a pool and get tired after a lap blame it on age or weight or condition or some joint issue, when often it’s simply that they’re swimming wrong,” Johnson said. “Their technique or breathing or something is wrong, and always has been.”

There’s swim instruction, of course. But there are also other pool activities that produce some of the same benefits.

Aquafit classes, which may include weights, cycling, running or just aerobic exercises, provide a lot of the same benefits as swimming, without the need for technique. Classes are also aligned for age, strength, conditioning or personal goals.

“Aquafit classes range from beginner to some pretty tough advanced classes,” Johnson said.

The secrets of all water exercise are buoyancy and resistance. “Water is 900 times more dense than air, so moving your body through water takes that much more energy,” he explained.

Water weights are lighter, easier to manage and buoyant. But instead of a regular weight resisting being lifted, the flotation weight resists being pushed down into the water. But they work the arms and shoulders, all the same muscle groups as “land” weights.

Buoyant “noodles” are amazing devices in the pool, said Johnson. “You can float around on a noodle, and when you suspend your body in the pool, you can more easily engage your legs in the workout.”

Even doing a vigorous standing or running-in-place activity in the water takes the weight and pressure off your joints.

Also, aquafit workouts are generally in group situations, which promotes social interaction, especially important for the elderly.

“So you see, water exercise doesn’t have to be swimming laps, like a lot of people think,” Johnson said.


“It’s tough to ask for help,” said Adam Johnson, senior aquatics director at the Northeast Family YMCA in Lyndon in Louisville. “At the (YMCA), we try to foster that nurturing environment.”

Johnson suggests a frank conversation with a fitness instructor, during which you ask questions and spend 15 minutes having your swimming stroke and technique evaluated.

“People come in all the time taking tours of the gym and asking details about how to use the equipment,” he said, “but rarely do they take us up on the pool side.”

It’s worthwhile, said Johnson, “because the benefits of swimming are awesome.”


On its website, www.usm.org, the U.S. Masters Swimming organization called swimming “the magic pill.”

“Swimming might be the single best thing you can do to avoid the diseases that plague our sedentary society and to vastly improve the function of both your body and mind. . . . The health benefits of swimming – at any speed and any age – are enormous.”

Among a long list of benefits the article lists are:


• Lowers blood pressure

• Reduces bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol

• Aids in weight loss and weight maintenance

• Benefits your immune system

• Makes your heart a better and more efficient pump

• Slows down the aging process

• Reduces your risk for heart disease and diabetes

• Reduces chronic pain, particularly from arthritis

• Develops lung capacity and helps COPD and asthma

• Exercises nearly every muscle in the body, especially if you swim all four strokes


• Improves problem solving skills and memory

• Reduces stress

• Reduces depression and anxiety

• Offers relaxation through the repetitive nature of movement

• Improves self-esteem and mental toughness

“The concentration required of swimming – synchronizing arm or leg movements with breathing, making sure your hands are in the right position, produces neurotransmitters,” said Johnson. “Any time we’re challenging our brain mentally, we’ll reduce stress and anxiety, reduce mental fatigue and improve our confidence, which carries over out of the pool.

“The total self: physical, mental and spiritual.”


The beauty of swimming is that all you pretty much need is a bathing suit and a towel. But here are some other considerations:


For men, Johnson discourages anything that goes past the knees. “You want general flexibility around the knee.”

A generic swimsuit is fine. Johnson’s has a 12-inch inseam and is cut three or four inches above the knee. “Believe me, you don’t need tight jammers or bikini-cut Speedos. That’s a tough thing to wear if you’re not real fit.”

He also recommends something that ties and can be adjusted or tightened, “so you won’t lose your shorts.”

For women, he recommends a one-piece over a two-piece. “You want comfort and support. It’s not the beach, you’re not tanning.”

Johnson’s suit is 100-percent polyester, which he says will last longer. He said he’s had nylon shorts that faded quickly. But mostly, “wear whatever feels comfortable. Not everyone likes the way rayon or nylon feels.”


Johnson said he doesn’t necessarily recommend them, but he knows some people’s eyes burn in the pool, or they want to be able to see where they’re going – or they might wear contact lenses.

If you’re going to use goggles, though, Johnson recommended investing in a good, large, well-fitting pair.

“The most important thing in swimming is to reduce the barriers that ruin your experience. And if you don’t have a good pair of goggles and spend a lot of time fidgeting with them trying to get water out, that’s a barrier.

“The goggles didn’t work.

I hate swimming!” So spending $15 or more on a pair of goggles is probably a good idea.


“We don’t require them in our pool, but if you have long hair, it’s probably a good idea.” And if you do, he said, the best caps are silicone.

“The latex ones are really tight, rip out your hair and often cause headaches.”


“I discourage them, I want people to be able to breathe out of all their orafices. But if you don’t like water in your nose, spend $2 to remove that barrier. They make comfortable, adjustable ones now.”


“We see more of those than of nose plugs. Keeping water out of your ear reduces the risk of infection. And certain people get uncomfortable when their ears clog up. Another barrier that’s easy to avoid.”

Also, another basic $2 investment.


Johnson recommends considering a waterproof in-water MP3 player. “It’s a great way to enjoy your workout. Load it up with your favorite music. It’s a way to take the exeprience from the land into the water.”


All six Louisville-area YMCAs and the two in Southern Indiana (Clark and Floyd counties) have pools and thorough swim instruction. (The Southwest YMCA on Fordhaven Road even has a bubble pool that converts to outdoors in the summer.)

And if you’re a member of one Y branch in Louisville, you can use all the Louisville Y branches plus any in Kentucky and about 90 percent of the YMCAs around the country.

Family rates are $89 a month; couple rates are $84 a month; individual rates are about $53 a month; and then there are senior rates, as well. Plus, some of the Ys participate in the Senior Sneakers program, an insurance-coordinated benefit that makes membership free on senior policyholders.

“The main thing about the membership rates,” said Johnson, “is that the YMCA’s mission statement is ‘we’re for all.’ So if you can’t fit the membership fee into your budget, we’ll find a price that fits your budget.”

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