Why aquatic exercise is making a splash with health conscious adults

The Bottom Line

  • Want a low impact workout that’s gentle on joints, bones and muscles? Aquatic exercise is a good option.
  • Studies suggest moderate to high intensity water-based exercise is at least as effective as land-based exercise in promoting physical fitness in older adults.
  • What are the best types of exercise? The ones you do regularly! If you’ve never tried exercising in water, consider taking a class for a refreshing change. 

Visit the pool at your local ‘Y’ or sports/recreation centre and you’re bound to see adults of all ages stretching, running, lunging, weight training, and swimming! Aquatic exercise – including swimming, water-based resistance training or water aerobics – is popular among people who want a low impact workout. For older adults it’s can be a great option to stay active… not to mention, it looks like fun!

But how does a water workout compare to land-based exercise?

A well-done systematic review measured the fitness level of participants who took part in different types of aquatic exercise programs compared to those who didn’t exercise at all, or who did land-based exercises (1). The participants (89% women), were all 50 years or older, were generally healthy but not exercising regularly before taking part in the research. They took aquatic classes one to five times a week doing a mixture of endurance and flexibility exercises for both the upper and lower body.

What the research tells us

Looks like all those “aquafit” fans are on to something: research evidence suggests that moderate to high intensity aquatic exercise is at least as effective as land-based exercise for  improving strength, endurance, flexibility and physical function (1).

Another review also found modest evidence that aquatic exercise helps relieve pain, stiffness and other symptoms of osteoarthritis (2;3).

Exercise is important for everyone and is a key to healthy aging, including preventing or slowing the progression of chronic conditions (4). The best type of exercise is one that you enjoy, as you are more likely to stick with it. So if you are someone who enjoys a splash in the pool, why not give aquatic exercise a try?

You don’t need to be a strong swimmer; in fact you don’t need to know how to swim at all. Kickboards, aquatic belts, water dumbbells and other equipment can help keep you buoyant and boost your workout. Sign up for a class and enjoy the added benefits of an enthusiastic instructor, group support, sometimes even music! Or if you’d prefer to go it alone, here are some pool exercises you can try: Slide show: Aquatic exercises

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Author Details


  1. Waller B, Ogonowska-Slodownik A, Vitor M et al. The effect of aquatic exercise on physical functioning in the older adult: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Age and Ageing. 2016; 45:594–602.
  2. Waller B, Ogonowska-Slodownik A, Vitor M et al. Effect of therapeutic aquatic exercise on symptoms and function associated with lower limb osteoarthritis: Systematic review with meta-analysis. Phys Ther. 2014; 94(10):1383-95.
  3. Bartels A, Juhl CB, Christensen R et al. Aquatic exercise for people with osteoarthritis in the knee or hip. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016; Art No. CD005523. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005523.pub3
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans [Internet]. Available from https://health.gov/paguidelines/pdf/paguide.pdf

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.