No swimming expertise or bikinis required. And it's a suprisingly effective workout.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

I have to admit that water aerobics seemed like the afterlife of "real" exercise. Got bad knees? Try swimming for your joints. Can't lift weights? Hit the pool for water resistance training. As to wearing a swimsuit while basically doing a gym workout: Never! Then there was the vain fact that I don't like to be seen with wet hair. To me, pools are best used as a place to cool off in the summer while trying to get a tan... I mean a little healthy vitamin D.

So I wasn't exactly an ideal candidate for water aerobics. Or maybe I was, because once I took the plunge, I humbly discovered that working out in water is a lot tougher, and a lot more interesting, than I had figured.

Swimming expertise is not required for water aerobics, though obviously you'll be happier if you're comfortable in a pool. Classes are held in shallow water, or deep water with the aid of a buoyancy belt. Exercises mimic many moves you'd do on dry land—running, kickboxing, strength training. But water adds 12 to 14 percent more resistance, so the motions require more energy, and you're basically forced to move in slow motion.

When I entered the pool room for the first time, a group of women (all of whom looked perfectly healthy and well under the age of 80) were already walking from one end of the pool to the other. To my surprise, I was welcomed in a friendly way before I even dipped a toe in the water, and this marked the first time I'd ever said more than a few words to anyone in my gym. Perhaps wearing less clothing makes people more open, or maybe we felt bound together by an unspoken pact: Let's be friends, then I won't judge you in your bathing suit and you won't judge me in mine.

When the instructor joined us, we picked up the pace from walk to jog. What's simple on land is no cakewalk in water. It's also a good idea to wear water shoes. Who knew? Well, now I did: Barefoot, I couldn't get much traction on the bottom of the pool. It was like being in a dream, or a comedy: Whenever my feet touched the slippery black lane stripes, I pitched face-first into the water.

Another good tip: As you're walking or jogging, aim to land in a heel-ball-toe foot pattern. Because of my buoyancy in water, I happily bobbed along on the balls of my feet. Big mistake! I can't adequately describe the tightness and pain in my calves afterward—sore to the light touch of a finger. (For later classes, I wore water shoes.)

After the warm-up, we all gathered for cardio drills. Each drill lasted 30 seconds to one minute and involved jumping straight out of the water, hands elevated above our heads. We did high knees—lifting knees as high as possible while jogging in place. We did jump tucks—jumping up while tucking our calves into our hamstrings. We did straight-leg kicks—quickly kicking one leg at a time out in front of our bodies. And we did jumping jacks while keeping hands below the water, lifting them to right below the surface, then pushing them back to our sides, a move that really works the triceps.

The toughest move was what I call the death spiral—running in a circle, then reversing direction, going against the current you just created.

I was sweating! I never realized you could do so many things in a pool without breaking into a swim stroke.

The instructor then divided the workout into four stations consisting of arm, ab, cardio, and leg moves. She taped up a list of four different exercises—16 in all—on each side of the pool. Each move took one minute. After completing the first move, we water-jogged to the next station and continued the rotation four times.

Many of the moves involved water dumbbells, which are made of foam. They're like anti-dumbbells: virtually weightless on land but buoyant in the water, making them difficult to submerge. As I pushed the weights down to my thighs and raised them to chest level for bicep curls, the force of the water engaged my arm muscles on both the upswing and downswing.

Push-ups followed. I don't even like to attempt these puppies on land, but I'm now a fan of the pool version. Because the dumbbells keep you afloat, you can lie stomach down on top of the water, arms and dumbbells extended beneath your shoulders, then pull the dumbbells up to chest level, then extend them straight down again.

Once we finished the working part of the class, we walked the length of the pool a few times to bring our heart rates back to normal, then stretched. I was exhausted, but the camaraderie was a benefit I hadn't foreseen. Water aerobics, it turns out, rehabs the soul. After class, one woman shared her story: She has lost more than 60 pounds in the last year by doing water aerobics two to three times a week. She carries a before picture in her workout bag as motivation. Another woman had recently overcome breast cancer and was regaining her strength in the pool.

Soon, I found myself really looking forward to the soothing powers of the pool. I loved slipping in and releasing the stress of the day against the pressure of the water, and I put my body-image apprehensions aside. Now, from the pool room, the pumped-up weight lifters in the gym look just as funny to me as the women in the pool used to, before I took the plunge.