Aquatic Therapy Comes of Age

By Skip Phairas

People have a special relationship with water. Born in water, we remain linked to it forever. Whether an individual uses water for recreation or for exercise, water can do amazing things for the body. Not only can it help keep you in shape, but it can also be used as a beneficial form of therapy, often called aquatic therapy.

Aquatic Therapy—What’s Your Flavor?
But what exactly is aquatic therapy? For our use, we refer to aquatic therapy as any form of exercise in water performed specifically to heal or improve some part of our bodies. Through time, aquatic therapy has proven to be an excellent form of exercise and is widely used today to treat a variety of physical conditions.
The first form of aquatic therapy was surely a natural hot spring, quietly bubbling out of the ground and forming a pool large enough for a human to settle into. Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C. referred to “the healing effects of soothing water.” And who can deny the prominence of the famed Roman baths? As humanity evolved, so did aquatic therapy. And that trend continues today.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Water
Water offers a number of natural components that just work well on the human body. They include:

Buoyancy directly tackles the effects of gravity on the body by reducing your effective weight in water with the result that you put far less stress on joints than you would on land. The deeper you stand in water, the more weightless you are. For many people who are overweight, exercising in water gives them the freedom to actually create movements that would hurt their lower joints too much to do on land. Less pain encourages more movement. The same goes for people who have been recently injured or are recovering from surgery.

Warm water helps dilate the blood vessels. Muscles that are tight and sore now become relaxed and begin to work better than they would otherwise, allowing a person to move better and with a wider range of motion. Warm water also helps reduce stress and anxiety, working to get our attitudes in the proper perspective, too. Today, virtually all “therapeutic” pools offer warm water, with most pool water temperatures kept between 88 degrees and 92 degrees.

Resistance (also Known as “Viscosity”)
Water has a natural property called viscosity, often referred to as “resistance.” The resistance of water is much greater than the resistance of air, so people who exercise in water use more muscles and use them harder than they would when doing the same movement on land. Water resistance is also unique because it can be felt in all directions of movement simultaneously, providing a more efficient workout.

Hydrostatic Pressure
Water also creates a unique pressure called hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure is the external pressure exerted on the body by the weight of the water. It helps increase the efficiency of the circulatory system, something highly desirable from a medical perspective. This increase in blood flow results in increased oxygen and nutrient-rich delivery to the cells as well as increased waste product removal—all of which helps the healing process.

Types of Aquatic Therapy (Exercise)
Many forms of aquatic therapy have evolved through time, some more scientifically oriented, some more naturally oriented and holistically centered. Aside from recreational swimming, a short list of popular forms of aquatic therapy and exercise includes:

Ai Chi
Ai chi is designed to strengthen and tone the body while promoting relaxation. Similar to tai chi, it encourages the principle of a healthy mind-body relationship. Ai chi has demonstrated its ability to improve physical functioning.

Water Aerobics
Water aerobics is one of the most popular forms of water exercise anywhere. Almost every gym and every public pool offers some form of water aerobics, from aggressive programs for the serious workout aficionado to gentle programs for senior citizens or those who are compromised physically.

Modeled after the principles of Zen shiatsu (massage), watsu involves a practitioner individually cradling clients and gently moving them slowly in the water in a series of gentle progressions. Often accompanied by soothing music, watsu is a beneficial form of meditation.

Aquatic Physical Therapy
As physical therapy developed as a bona fide medical profession in Western civilization during the last century, the role of aquatic therapy grew with it. In 1995, the American Physical Therapy Association formally adopted aquatic therapy as a recognized form of physical therapy. Today, aquatic therapy is a staple of Western medicine, with most hospitals offering some form of aquatic therapy as part of their physical therapy programs.

Aquatic Therapy and Exercise outside the Medical System
Many excellent practitioners also exist outside the medical community in the form of fitness trainers, exercise physiologists, and yoga instructors. The world of sports has also discovered aquatic therapy and training with many professional sports teams, college teams, and Olympic athletes routinely using aquatic pools for physical rehabilitation and advanced physical conditioning.

Everywhere you look today, aquatic therapy is widely embraced for a variety of physical issues. It has proven beyond doubt its ability to prove numerous benefits to humanity. People have every reason to get in the water—for recreation, for exercise, or for therapeutic reasons. It’s safe, it’s easy, it’s fun, and it produces physical and medical results that equal or exceed results that can be obtained on land.

Aquatic Therapy Comes of Age—Advanced Hydrotherapy Pools
The latest advance in aquatic therapy has been the recent introduction of specialized hydrotherapy pools, or advanced hydrotherapy pools, in the last two decades. Combining technology with carefully designed smaller pools, specialized hydrotherapy pools are now available that produce far better results for a wider population of people than standard swimming pools. One major manufacturer of advanced hydrotherapy pools is Hydroworx from Pennsylvania. Hydroworx pools offer a number of advanced technology features, such as underwater treadmills, underwater cameras, video recording systems, variable speed resistance jets, massage jets, and variable water levels. A quantum leap forward in physical therapy and physical exercise capabilities, these technological marvels produce better results than traditional swimming pool programs do.
In the future, look for the latest generation of advanced aquatic therapy pools in your area—either at your local hospital, sports club, or physical therapy office. Remember—

Water is good! So get in the Water!

Skip Phairas is owner of the Chico Hydrotherapy Center, a privately owned advanced hydrotherapy center in Chico, CA. Using certified trainers and exercise physiologists, the Chico Hydrotherapy Center works with clients of all ages who have a wide variety of physical issues as well as athletes who want to train like the pros. For more information, please visit the Chico Hydrotherapy Center at or call 530-717-7202.