Fact or Myth: Do Water Workouts Offer the Same Fitness Benefits as Land-based Workouts?

This is FACT.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, swimmers’ risk of death is about half that of inactive individuals. Sure, swimming improves your overall health, especially your cardiovascular endurance, but how do the benefits of water workouts measure up to the benefits of land-based workouts? Fairly well, if we go by research.

Gravity vs. Water Resistance 

Fitness - a young couple (man and woman) doing sports and gymnastics or water aerobics under water in swimming pool or spa with dumbbells

When we exercise on land, be it an aerobics class or pounding the pavement, our body weight works against gravity, and this resistance helps to build lean muscle mass and burn fat. In water, however, gravity is negated, and our body weight is 90% lighter…which is why a 100-lb woman can easily lift a 250-lb man in the water. While gravity’s effects may not be as strong, the water provides its own set of challenges. Water offers up 12-14% more resistance than air does, so your body weight is still working against increased density and resistance. Exercising in water helps:

  • Improve flexibility, because your muscles can move through a wider range of motion.
  • Increase lung capacity, because your lungs have to work harder against the pressure of the water.
  • Boost cardiovascular stamina and circulation.
  • Heal ailing muscles and joints.

Burn Calories and Fat

Studies have shown that exercising in water can burn as many calories and as much fat as exercising on land, even though it may feel easier. Water workouts appear to be easier because of the cooling and supportive effects the water has on muscles and joints. But while land-based exercise activates your metabolism by increasing your heart rate, water-based exercise increases your oxygen consumption. In fact, the American Council on Exercise advises listening to your body when exercising in water rather than measuring intensity by your heart rate, which drops by as much as 17 beats per minute in the water versus on land.

As for burning fat, a 2012 study conducted by the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress showed that when people exercised on a submersible ergocycle, which is an exercise bike in a pool, they enjoyed fitness benefits comparable to those gained from exercising on a stationary bike, as measured by maximum oxygen consumption.

One thing water exercise doesn’t give you as much of as land exercise does is weight-bearing resistance, which is important for bone loss and osteoporosis prevention. You can add resistance bands and hand buoys to your water workouts, but it’s best to mix it up and engage in resistance training on land as well.