A New Step in Water Aerobics Therapy

by Janis Leibold, Assistant Editor, Fibromyalgia Network
Posted: September 30, 2011

Researchers and physicians frequently tout the benefits of exercise, saying it can help restore physical function, improve muscle blood flow, and reduce pain. Yet finding the right level of activity is a serious hurdle, because overdoing it can easily lead to an exacerbation of your fibromyalgia pain.

Low-intensity exercise is often recommended to people with fibromyalgia to help maintain mobility. But the thought of starting an activity, overdoing it, stopping, and starting all over again is a frustrating and discouraging cycle.

Two researchers in Spain have come up with a therapeutic exercise program that fibromyalgia patients seem to be able to stick with while improving their overall health.* The study included 44 fibromyalgia patients divided into two groups. One formed the control group that received educational literature on fibromyalgia health and simply resumed their normal lifestyle. The actual study group received an exercise program that included deep water running in a warm water pool with the aid of a floatation device.

The eight-week program consisted of five minutes of gentle stretching, 15 minutes of mobility and flexibility exercises, 15 minutes of moderate muscle strengthening, 20 minutes of deep water running with a flotation device, followed by a five-minute relaxing, cool-down period. In total, the participants did this one-hour routine three times a week.

Before and after the eight-week program, both groups were given a fibromyalgia symptom questionnaire to evaluate the treatment effects. In addition, the study group was given a heart-rate activity test to determine at what point they were pushing themselves beyond a moderate threshold. This information was used to individualize each study participant’s exercise treatment program.

During the first two weeks, patients in the deep water running group were instructed to keep a fairly low heart rate. Then they should attempt to exercise with an increased heart rate that produced a moderate water running pace based on their prior testing. This part of the study was done in six feet of 81-degree water (the deep end of a pool). Participants wore a floatation belt that kept their head above water, and they were instructed to mimic a running motion. No participants dropped out of the study.

The test group reported a 20% reduction in most of their fibromyalgia symptoms. Significantly noted was less pain, fatigue, and morning stiffness. Improvements were also made in physical function, anxiety, depression, sleep, and overall quality of life. The control group showed no improvement.

“It is difficult to separate the effectiveness of the deep water running from the other activities,” said Antonio I. Cuesta-Vargas, Ph.D. “But previous studies of exercise show worsening of symptoms and high drop-out levels. Here, there were no reported adverse effects confirming that patients with fibromyalgia can undergo physical training without damage and increased muscle soreness, and the deep water running may be a useful addition to treatment.”

A 20% improvement is relatively small, but keep in mind that this is just one aspect of treatment. Cuesta-Vargas is now seeking to incorporate this combination of physical activity into a complete program for fibromyalgia patients that includes diagnosis, activity and counseling, and pain management.

* Cuesta-Vargas AI, Adams N. Clin Rheumatol [Epub ahead of print] Aug 25, 2011.

Note: Looking for a flotation device that’s easy to use? See a variety available online at the following locations:

  • Aqua jogger and water running flotation devices: Amazon.com, $28.74 and up.
  • Flotation belt by WaterGym, Watergym.com, $33.95
  • Water jogging belts: SwimOutlet.com, starting at $25.95.

21 Responses to A New Step in Water Aerobics Therapy

  1. Terry Cook says:

    I have tried water excersises and they have been fruitless for me. I am going to give this aspect and see where it leads me, hopefully to a good point and then I will continue. I will let you know. Terry

  2. Veronica Ross says:

    Thank you for such an interesting article – I had heard that “swimming” is the best exercise for anyone since all the muscles of the body are used when participating in it – I can understand just how this would benefit anyone with Fibromyalgia. Thanks again.

  3. Olga says:

    I use the warm water pool 2 – 3 times a week at my local YMCA & it truly helps me.

  4. Charmagne LaPrise says:

    Most YMCA’s offer a program run by the American Arthritis Association. It is a very gentle complete range of motion, water walking, group exercise in warm water( 85 degrees). More heat can be debilitating so my fibro group spends only a few minutes in the hot tub to warm up if needed at the end.
    We are all over 60 years old and could consider adding water bar bells or other more active devices for strength but 45 min. seems to provide just the right level of feeling great. We end the swim after jogging with a flotation device then by leaving to go to our local senior center for breakfast together. This is good social support twice a week.
    OTR/L, LCSW ret.

  5. Charmagne LaPrise says:

    We are trying to find a Water Yoga Meditation group leader. It would be a fabulous ending or stand by itself.

  6. Deb says:

    A water flotation device is the best thing I use in the water to jog. I love it!

  7. sara miller says:

    I have been participating in a water aerobics class for about 2 1/2 years and my results have been beyond belief.

    I had been committed to exercise my entire life (I believe I have had fibro my whole life and only continuous exercise kept me moving freely). Things kind of fell apart for me physically about 8 or 9 years ago and I could no longer exercise. The final blow was developing bursitis in my hip in 2006.

    I retired in 2006, defeated breast cancer and tried several times to develop an exercise program for myself. Each time ended with my fibro out-of-control and me in more pain.

    A good friend nagged me into trying water aerobics. I wanted no part of it as I did not like pools. The class has given me control of my life back . I gradually increased my water activities to include walking/running in the pool for 45 to 60 minutes before class and extra leg exercises utilizing noodles to regain leg strength. When I found out in March of this year that my bursitis had developed into a need for a hip replacement I pushed myself to get as strong as I possibly could.

    I had the surgery 7 weeks ago and can’t believe how well I have done. I have no pain in my hip. I haven’t felt this good in so many years that I’d forgotten what it felt like. I had a wonderful doctor, but I give even more credit to the exercise I am able to do in the pool.

  8. Judy Sowder says:

    For three years now I have used a form of Tai Chi in the water, called Ai Chi, and I have not had an serious pain for all of that time. Several others with FM in the class have raved about how this water exercise reduces their pain and allows them to continue an active life.

  9. Donna Dankoff says:

    When I worked at Methodist Hospital in Indiana, there was a warm therapy pool to do exercises with a certified water therapist. Those weeks in therapy were the best months that I had the absolutely BEST relief of my symptoms. I do not work for Methodist anymore but the hospital that I currently works for are building a new hospital and a therapy pool is not part of their plans…..too bad for me. I wish that I could get my insurance to at least pay for a spa tub for me….so I just keep on hurting daily; some days are better than some but warm water therapy exercises with stretching in the water worked the best for me; I was like a different person. Thanks for reading this post.

  10. maudine walker says:

    I also have tried the warm water walking while in therapy and continued on my own in warm water world pool and heated pool if I can find one near and even had a young therapist show me some things privately I can do on my own this has helped me with flexabilty & endurance movement issues This has given me hope!!

  11. Lorelei Weir says:

    In Australia I attend Aqua Moves at my very local Hydro pool @ Currumbin; this therapy is a combo of Pilates, Physiotherapy, Feldenkrais stretch and relaxation moves conducted by skilled, hands on practitioners. The focus is not on held poses, but gentle movement in the water. Do nothing which hurts. The psychosocial aspect to all these therapies is pivotal. Depression and social isolation & all associated grief issues of living with the FMS disorders is addressed by initially interacting with the therapist. Then graduating to an Arthritis self management hydro group.

  12. Lee B. says:

    My Pain Management Specialist has prescribed Aquatic Physical Therapy for fibromyalgia and looking forward to progress for “exercise” that may benefit my symptoms. I live in the East Valley of Phoenix (Mesa/Gilbert), AZ and wonder if members have a recommendation of Aquatic Centers. I’m not sure if I can list the two facilities that were recommended by the MD. Thanks!

  13. Deb McC says:

    6 weeks ago I started using the warm water pool at my local gym. I am feeling so much better and stronger. I water walk and jog, and use the water paddles, dumbbells, noodles and aquabelts to work both upper and lower body. My core is stronger, as is arms and legs. I’ve been getting a weekly PT massage (insurance covered) for the past 3 years, but felt my progress was stalled, so I added acupunture over the summer. My pain level is so much lower (hips and neck are my continuing areas). Right now I feel that the combo of all 3 works well for me. Best wishes and happy new year all! :)

  14. Christina says:

    I belong to a local gym with a heated pool. Am able to attend on average 7 water exercise classes each week. One is Aqua Zumba, which is really fun and challenging. Our group consists mostly of older women (and a few men) and each of us expresses how wonderful it feels just to enter the warm water. Our other classes emphasize aerobic exercise or muscle toning. One of our instructors gives us a excellent stretch at the end of class. These classes are the highlight of my life, as I know that I’m becoming strong and more fit. And I love the social interaction!

  15. KK says:

    I’ve also been doing an arthritis water aerobics class for about a year. I actually don’t think my fibro has improved but I wouldn’t miss it. Just getting into the warm water and moving so freely and without a lot of pain is wonderful. However I am like a beached whale getting back out of the water without the wonderful buoyancy and heat! I can’t say anything has improved but I look forward to each class for the 45 minute experience. The only thing that can really ruin my day is if the temp is off – even so slightly. Oh yummy warm water! I’m a water ballerina!

  16. Barbara says:

    I was going to my gym and warm water pool (86 degrees) 2-3 times a week a few years ago, but things changed and I couldn’t go. I’m now retired and have time again, and am looking for a friend to help motivate me. I live in northeast Phoenix in the Paradise Valley Mall area, and love The Club for Women on Thunderbird near 40th Street. My insurance does not cover Silver Slippers, and The Club doesn’t provide it, so most of my friends don’t want to go their and I don’t want to go where they go because most of the other health clubs in the area keep their water temperature cooler than 86 degrees.

  17. Trish says:

    Water aerobics does help me a lot.The only thing is my Y has a deep water excercise class that is in the lap pool, which is so much colder than the activity pool. So I do my own excercise in the activity pool which is much warmer water.

  18. Melissa Swanson says:

    I have been doing water aerobics for the past 2 years. It is amazing. It has been a physical and social benefit for myself.
    I started out doing a class a week. Just an easy going stretch class. I now swim 5 days a week; and have added some kettlebells and free weights. The swimming classes I take now are water aerobics, water zumba and water gym. I have managed to keep off the weight that so often is a side affect of Fibro and the meds. On days when I can barely walk – I take it easy. I excercise as much as my body will allow. On my good days – I work my hardest. The water is cold – not a heated therapy pool. But trust me by the time you start moving – you are warm and the more I do this kind of moving – the better I feel.

  19. Marsha says:

    I am so happy to read how many people have found this treatment helpful. Unfortunately our local wmca closed. Acupunture & massage therapy helped me a lot but I can’t afford to pay for them anymore and my HMO just wants to give me drugs and send me away! I’m going to check out gym in out.

  20. Lyn Hurley says:

    At last, someone has confirmed my suspicion that warm water aerobics is in fact beneficial to combat bursitis in my hip. thanks to everyone for all information, especially about icing, as I have found it the only cheap and drug free pain reliever. I am not one to swallow tablets all the time, yet the pain has given me many a sleepless night. I am 60 and now feel ready to walk in a 30 km race.

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