Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • October 2016
Written by 

Taking control: Benefits of aquatic exercise for arthritis

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability among U.S. adults and can be both a physically and emotionally painful experience. Most people start to feel some pain or stiffness in their bodies and joints, which can increase in severity over time. Everyday tasks like walking, climbing stairs and grasping objects can be physically draining, and the inability to move your body and perform the way you want can be frustrating.

One of the best ways to help deal with arthritic symptoms and pain is by participating in a regular warm water exercise program. I typically see patrons with numerous arthritic conditions including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus and gout attending water classes or independent aquatic exercise programs because it is a form of exercise they can comfortably do while limiting the risk of injury.

People with arthritis benefit most from a balanced program that includes a variety of exercises. There are three main types of exercises that can be completed in the water and should be included in a program: range of motion (flexibility), strengthening and endurance.


It’s important to move joints through their full range of motion (ROM) every day to maintain flexibility. However, many do not realize that daily activities such as housework, shopping and cooking only work joints in one, often repetitive, direction.

Completing ROM exercises in water provides the ideal gravity-reduced environment to gently stretch painful and swollen joints in all directions. In shoulder deep water, about 90 percent of the body’s weight is removed from the joints, making these exercises easier, yet still challenging for those with arthritis.


Strong muscles help keep joints stable and comfortable. Completing strength exercises in water lets the buoyancy decrease joint compression while providing ten times the resistance of air. This allows you to work more muscles during exercise and increase muscle strength with minimal joint aggravation. Buoyancy also reduces the risk and fear of falling, so you can walk and move in water with more confidence than on land.


Sustained movements like water walking strengthen your heart, make your lungs more efficient and give you the stamina to work out longer. Swimming and exercising in warm water supports the body so there’s less stress on your hips, knees, feet and spine. This type of exercise can take time, so in order to gradually build up endurance, incorporate endurance exercises for 20-30 minutes per day, at least three times per week.

Some days, I see patrons who are experiencing a lot of discomfort, so they will opt for the warmth of the whirlpool instead of their exercise plan and that’s OK. Warm water is not only helpful in relieving joint pain and relaxing muscles, but just by being submerged in water, your body will obtain these hidden health benefits of hydrostatic pressure:

  1. Speeds up metabolism (burns more calories).
  2. Increases HDL, “good cholesterol.”
  3. Decreases blood pressure.
  4. Improves circulation (imagine wearing an oversized compression stocking that keeps blood moving throughout your body, reducing edema/swelling).

Other things to look for

It is important to look for aquatic classes that not only provide benefits through exercise, but also offer a non-competitive atmosphere and a fun, social component. Let’s face it, if you are not excited about a class, you aren’t going to go. Look for variety in classes as well like water tai chi or water yoga that help with flexibility and focus on deep breathing. The buddy system is another incentive. Whether it is a joint motion class or something as basic as water walking, attending with a friend or family member can keep you motivated.

When you incorporate aquatic exercise into your daily routine and accept it as a way of life, it can decrease depression, improve self-esteem and give you a better sense of well-being. Start taking control of your arthritis today, contact your local pool and find an exercise class that inspires you!

Bonnie Murry

Bonnie Murray is a Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, certified in Adaptive Aquatics Interventions with multi-disabilities. She’s been at the Aquatic Center at CP since 2012 and works with patrons with neuromuscular disorders, post-trauma rehabilitation needs, pain management and personal fitness goals.

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