Ready, Set, Go!

Go Jump in the Pool

By Graham Verdon

Anyone who bounced around in a pool as a child remembers pretending to be an astronaut in space, free from the shackles of pesky terrestrial gravity. Buoyancy renders the average person practically “weightless” in water, making the fantasy possible. 

Now this “weightless” effect resulting from buoyancy (or our ability to float in water) is being used in aquatic therapy, an emerging treatment helping a variety of people experiencing a wide range of health conditions. As we move in water, buoyancy greatly reduces strain on our joints – submersion in neck deep water decreases weight bearing by up to 90% – and the water also serves as natural resistance for a surprisingly intense workout.

“In a first session, people may feel like they’re not working that hard in the pool. Then they get out and their legs are a little shaky and they’re more tired than they anticipated,” says John Wilkie, a certified athletic therapist at Hydrathletics Aquatic Therapy and Sports Training in Kingston, Ontario. “In addition to a great workout, the water unloads the joints and ensures slow and gentle movement, and that helps ensure you won’t aggravate an existing condition.” 

The reason that being in water delivers a surprisingly intense workout has to do with water resistance. Water provides excellent resistance because its higher viscosity makes muscles work harder than when doing the same exercises on dry land. Water’s viscosity (or the state of being thick in consistency due to internal molecular friction) means that more effort is needed for each movement. In addition, the heart also must work harder in order to deliver blood to the muscles, which leads to a good workout for the cardiovascular system.

Aquatic therapy also utilizes hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure – defined as the force exerted on the body that is immersed in liquid – produces forces perpendicular to the body’s surface. This pressure makes the patient aware of the position of their joints. This improved proprioception is important in the case of treating joint sprains and ligament injuries. Hydrostatic pressure also helps to decrease joint and soft tissue swelling that often accompanies injury. 

Water for Therapy

Aquatic therapy is great for joint pain and immobility issues of all kinds, which are perhaps the most common physical issues facing an aging population. Arthritis, for example, is a degenerative inflammatory condition in the joints that is exacerbated by weight bearing. In water, you can achieve the same range of motion as on land but without loading the joints – this can help older people remain active with less pain and therefore improve quality of life.

It may also allow for rehabilitation to begin sooner after surgery or injury. “During recovery, the water allows for a head start. For a patient rehabilitating from knee replacement surgery, for example, we can start a week or two earlier in the pool, bridging that gap between immobility and eventual land training,” Wilkie says.

Aquatic therapy also might figure into a “prehab” plan in the weeks leading up to a surgery. In this case, muscles can be built up with less discomfort, so the patient is ahead of the game before the procedure and has less work to do post-op.

Water for Exercise

Athletic therapists aren’t the only ones using water in their programs. Athletes of all kinds are training underwater for strength and endurance. Known as hydrathletics, it can be part of a cross-fit regime that offers a high-cardio, low-impact workout. 

Anyone at any age can benefit from hydrathletics or aquatic therapy. Think of the benefits for expecting moms who want to stay active as their body is working to handle the stress of pregnancy. Think of those suffering any lower-body condition, from hip pain to tendinitis. Think of anyone who wants a hard workout with less compressive force. “Moving underwater is going to increase your energy expenditure and calorie outlay because you’re working harder to do the same movements. But gently,” Wilkie says.

Contributing Athletic Therapist
John Wilkie


John Wilkie est thérapeute du sport agréé chez Hydrathletics Aquatic Therapy and Sports Training, à Kingston, en Ontario. Il a obtenu son diplôme de baccalauréat en sciences de la santé appliquées en thérapie du sport au Sheridan College à Oakville, en Ontario. Il a travaillé avec des joueurs de rugby, de hockey, de basketball et de balle rapide, mais à titre d’ancien joueur de football collégial, il suit passionnément la LCF et la LNF dans ses temps libres.