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Sue Ratthaus seems pretty agile as she slips into the pool. But Ratthaus says before she started taking water aerobics classes at Piedmont Hospital's Health and Fitness Club, pain from fibromyalgia and arthritis had her immobilized. "I couldn't walk. I couldn't lift my arms," she says.
Most doctors and physical therapists agree that swimming is one of the best low-impact whole-body workouts. But even if you're not a swimmer, there are a variety of ways to exercise in the water.
New high-end equipment --- such as the underwater treadmill or stationary bike recently featured on NBC's "Today" show --- is getting a lot of attention. But there are also a number of inexpensive products that can turn any pool into a gym, without breaking the bank.
Most health clubs offer a variety of aquatic fitness classes, and people are taking to these workouts like, well, a fish to water.
"Everybody who has any smarts is in the water," says Eleanor Oresti. Oresti teaches aquatic fitness classes --- from water walking to high-intensity deep-water aerobics --- four to six days a week at several locations around Atlanta. Her students range in age from 20 to 90, but most are 50 and older.
Anyone can benefit from water workouts, but they're especially good for people who have injuries or physical conditions that make land-based exercise difficult.
"My arthritis people kind of crawl into the water," Oresti says, "but they don't crawl out, they walk out."
Dr. Gary Botstein, a rheumatologist in private practice in Atlanta, says that when you run, walk or bike, the impact on your joints can be up to three times your body weight. But in the water, the buoyancy counteracts the effects of gravity, he says.
When you're standing in shoulder-deep water, your body weight is supported by the water. So there's less pressure on your hips, knees and ankles.
With the aid of a flotation belt that holds you upright, you can essentially "jog" in deep water without hammering your joints.
At the same time, water adds resistance, says physical therapy assistant Steve Chastain of Decatur Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine. "It's kind of the best of both worlds." Water is denser than air and offers more resistance to every move you make --- which means you're working harder than you think. "People think it's easy, but it's really not."
In the water you can get a cardiovascular workout, improve your circulation, increase your flexibility and range of motion, and strengthen and tone your muscles, Botstein says.
You sweat just as much in the water as you do on land, so it's still important to rehydrate regularly. But water continuously cools the body, so there's less chance of overheating.
Ruth Cook, 48, says she "jazzercised" for 20 years before her multiple sclerosis was diagnosed. Then she turned to water aerobics to stay fit. "Because of MS, I can overheat my muscles," she explains as she bobs, chin deep, in the Piedmont pool.
Lynne Parten, general manager at Gold's Gym Peachtree City East, says she's seen a big increase in people attending water aerobics classes. The gym has a full schedule of aquatics classes, including one called "Moms in Motion" for pre- and postpartum women.
The Crunch gym in Stone Mountain has about a dozen underwater bikes and offers three aquatic cycling classes a week.
But you don't even need equipment or a special class to make the most of your time in the water. Oresti says the best no-equipment-necessary workouts are: > Walking in waist-deep water, forward, backward and sideways. > Opening your arms out to the sides in the water, then bringing them in, crossing them in front of you. To vary the resistance, change the angle of your hands. More surface area equals more resistance. > Rolling your hips, like hula-hooping without the hoop.
One thing Oresti advises people to invest in is a good pair of shoes especially made for the water, like those from Ryka or Avia.
You can also incorporate props --- such as webbed gloves, water noodles (those long foam cylinders kids play with), dumbbells and flotation belts --- to add variety to your workout or increase the intensity.
The benefit of exercise is as much for your mind as it is for your body, says Piedmont aquatic fitness instructor Sharon Eaton. "Water allows everybody to get the mental benefits," she says. It can also add variety to a workout program, to keep you from getting bored.
And there's something about the water that bonds people, Oresti notes. She says the classes are a great outlet for people who might not have many other opportunities to socialize.
"It's really collegial," says Reva Ezell, who chats with Ratthaus and Cook while the women wait for class to begin. "We're sharing this experience."
Botstein speculates that water's ability to soothe may have to do with returning to our roots. "We all came out of the water at some point," he says.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution