Aqua Aerobics With RA

Patient Expert
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With hot summer days upon us, I figure maybe people like me who live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), might be able to use the pool for more than languishing and cooling off from the heat. I recently took my HealthCentral fitness taste-testing experiment to the local athletic club, where I dipped in for an aqua aerobics class.

The class was called “Aqua Aerobics HIIT Night.” I assumed “HIIT” referred to the sensational disco music I and a dozen other mostly senior women participants swim-boogied to for the hourlong class. Such “hits” included “Car Wash,” “We Are Family,” and various Bee Gees and Village People smashes. But no — the title was “HIIT” and stood for high intensity interval training. This meant that, like many of the other fitness classes I’ve tried for HealthCentral, the session would oscillate between periods of maximum effort and periods of rest. So let’s rewind, and discuss my experience in the pool and how it worked with my RA.

One thing I initially loved was the heated pool. I’ve found that one major consideration for people with RA regarding exercise is the climate; cold temperatures usually mean stiff, tender joints, making it more difficult to achieve any level of fitness. Nothing is worse for us than a gym that cranks up its air conditioning. So when I leapt into the warm pool, my joints rejoiced. They quickly felt mobile, fluid, and comfortable.

What to expect

For the next hour we engaged in different aerobic activities. Gripping light dumbbells for two-minute intervals, we did the breaststroke in place; we did tricep extensions; and we did bicep curls. For the legs, we kicked like kickboxers, and we leapt like hurdlers. For our abdominal muscles, we did scissor kicks while floating with the help of buoyant dumbbells. While none of this may sound like it meets the criteria for “intense,” I will say constantly moving the dumbbells through the water for two minutes at a time became quite a workout. Our instructor was also very instrumental in getting us to not just go through the motions, but to move our arms and legs as quickly as possible, as many times as possible. This made two minutes feel like an eternity.

(Something else that made the class feel like an eternity: A student from one of my classes at College of San Mateo was the lifeguard, and I could tell he was squinting at me, trying to figure out if that was actually his professor splashing around to disco music. I proceeded to incorporate several of my own dance moves, in which I submerged myself fully underwater for seconds at a time, to disappear.)

What was worked out

My arms received a solid workout. One hour is a long time to be moving objects through water rapidly, even if the objects weigh next to nothing. I compare this experience to running with a parachute, but for the arms. The duration and intensity of the intervals had my arms burning, and trembling, and very sore the next day — particularly my triceps, shoulders, and back.

I would also say my grip strength/forearms were challenged throughout this class, as a tight grip on the dumbbells was necessary to control and guide them through the water over and over again.

The core and the legs were engaged throughout the class, but I would not say I felt the burn in any significant way.

Would I recommend it for RA?

I would certainly recommend giving aqua aerobics a try. The class incorporated a lot of the movements from other classes I’ve tried, like kicking, and punching, and jumping. The difference was:

  1. The resistance from the water was an added, welcome challenge.
  2. The warmth of the pool gave aid to my flexibility and cushion to my joints.
  3. The water eliminated any impact on the joints from jumping.

I will say, though, that the next day my left elbow, which is my old pitching elbow and a joint that is impacted by RA, was stiff and tender, as was my right wrist. This was from overexertion and concentration on those specific joints.

An antidote for this issue would be to briefly set the dumbbells aside and continue with just hands. By letting the dumbbells go, there is less resistance, therefore less stress on impacted joints. I believe this option opens aqua aerobics up to people with varying levels of severity of RA.

All in all, I think this is a great opportunity to get your whole body moving, without the risk of high-impact on ankles, knees, etc. The water gives a weightlessness that is very pleasant to a body with RA. So now you can jump in the pool and accomplish more than just beating the heat this summer. As with trying anything new, be sure to consult with your rheumatologist to see if trying aqua aerobics is a good fit for you.

See more helpful articles:

The Benefits of Zumba for RA

Taking a Spin Class With RA

Kicking It: Kickboxing and RA