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Life Aquafit may be a low-impact exercise, but it’s far from relaxed

Training in the water provides a good workout for people with osteoarthritis or other joint complications, for anyone wanting low-impact cross-training and for athletes recovering from injury.

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In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.

If you like to master new exercise moves in a non-impact environment, then you are in luck – aquafit is a pool staple. Look for it at your local community centre, YMCA or JCC or any gym or sports complex with a pool. I braved balancing on a pool noodle – not to mention prune-like fingers – with my friend Jenn, 35, and client of over 15 years Ron, 79, during aquafit at the JCC. Jenn – a self-professed "class and workout junkie" – was an aquafit newbie and is seven months postpartum. Ron cycles and weight trains regularly, but had never done any kind of group exercise class.

The promise

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The JCC describes their aquafit classes as "cardio conditioning" done in water. Participants enjoy the benefits of a cardiovascular workout without wear and tear on their joints; the workout is "safe, effective and enjoyable."

What to expect

Picture old-school synchronized Jane Fonda-esque aerobics but with the participants – in this case Ron and roughly 20 women mostly over 40 – in the water trying to mimic an instructor on the pool deck.

Warm-up was width-wise "laps" straddling a noodle like a horse. We used moves such as bike kicks and arm scoops to move through the water. The main cardiovascular section included full lengths of the pool – still on the noodle – and stationary exercises such as jumping jacks and cross-country skiing. The next more "core-centric" section – my favourite – included the "pendulum" (you alternate pushing the noodle out in one direction while simultaneously kicking your legs in the other), and what I call the "noodle V sit." Picture lying lengthwise on a noodle – like in a hammock – feet wrapped around one end. You use your core to push the noodle down and then to control it as it comes back up – it's harder than you'd think. We finished with stretching.

If the workout sounds relaxed – even light – don't be deceived. It wasn't. As Jenn pointed out, the class disproved the stereotype that workouts such as CrossFit are strict and dogmatic while aquafit is lighthearted and relaxed. Both Ron and Jenn found the workout intense, and Jenn said the students were as "into it" as any CrossFit participants.

The verdict

Jenn and Ron enjoyed themselves. After 30 minutes, I was cold and slightly bored. To be fair, I get cold easily and as an ex-aquafit instructor, it takes a lot to wow me.

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The main positive of training in the water is the workout is appropriate for people with osteoarthritis or other joint complications, for anyone wanting low-impact cross-training and for athletes recovering from injury. The water allows participants to challenge their heart and lungs without overstressing their joints. Jenn loved that she was able to feel as if she were running – something she is missing post-baby – without impact.

Aquafit also includes intervals. Intervals – bouts of high- and low-intensity training – are essential to any fitness routine. The intent behind interval training is to gradually increase your fitness so that higher-intensity work feels more normal.

Now, the negatives. An appropriate amount of impact and stress on bones aids in prevention and management of osteoporosis. If you do aquafit regularly, great – just make sure to also walk and strength train.

Additional negatives include a lack of convenience and comfort. Not everyone feels comfortable in a bathing suit and aquafit is a big time investment. You have to budget time for transportation to and from the pool and possibly to wash and blow-dry your hair. Jenn said aquaft would involve – especially if the pool were chlorinated – scheduling classes around when she had time to deal with her hair – a huge deterrent since she doesn't have an excess of time. These negatives may seem inconsequential or even silly, but in my experience, silly negatives easily become huge disincentives.

Following the choreography can also feel frustrating. This can be positive or negative depending on your mindset. Your fellow participants are underwater so you can't follow their lead when you get lost – something that often happens in land-based classes. Translating the teacher's demonstrations into water-based moves could be frustrating or, as Ron said, "part of the fun and challenge."

If you decide to try a class, go early to learn the etiquette, bring a plastic bag for your wet bathing suit, try both shallow- and deep-water classes to see which you prefer and stay hydrated. As Jenn noted, in the water, it's difficult to gauge how hard you are working.

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I won't be signing up for regular aquafit classes, but if the idea of dancing in the water compels you to get to the gym regularly, don't walk but run to sign up.

Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @KTrotterFitness.

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