Doheny is a free-lance health writer based in Burbank

Howard Barsky loved his tap-dancing class, but he wanted variety in his exercise routine. So one night Barsky decided to join his wife, Nina, in her exercise program--an aquatic workout.

Barsky took it easy, splashing through the warm-up moves and jogging gently in the water. Slowly, he followed the instructor's lead in exercises meant to tone the hamstrings, quadriceps and other muscles. He relaxed and breathed deeply during the cool-down. Before the hour was up, Barsky was hooked on aqua training.

Two years later, the West Los Angeles couple suits up twice a week and heads for the Beverly Hills YMCA to participate in a "Water Power Workout."

"I find that my upper body is much stronger than before," says Howard, 60, an advertising manager for a retail store. Adds Nina, 55, a staff assistant at a local college: "After an hour, we have exercised every part of our bodies."

What the Barskys discovered about aquatic exercise is no news to many elite athletes, recreational runners, fitness walkers, arthritis patients, pregnant women, senior citizens, children and a host of others.

Exercising in water is not only fun and soothing, but it's productive, too. A single session can build aerobic endurance and tone muscles. Those who can't swim also can jump right in, thanks to shallow-water routines and flotation devices designed for deep-water workouts.

Water exercise--or aqua training--is booming, advocates claim. "I see it as the exercise of the '90s," says Lynda Huey, a Santa Monica kinesiologist who developed the "Water Power Workout" to help clients regain their strength.

"In the '60s, it was tennis," she says. "In the '70s, it was running; in the '80s, aerobics. In the '90s, it will be water." Statistics suggest that Huey may be right.

In 1986, there were 500,000 "vertical" aqua exercisers--a record-keeping term for water exercisers who don't swim. By 1988, there were 2.2 million, estimates the American Fitness Assn., a Durango, Colo.-based nonprofit organization. Last year, the number had grown to 4 million, reports Dr. Jean Rosenbaum, the group's president.

Advocates cite a number of attractions for the activity. Exercising in water minimizes injury risk. When an exerciser is submerged to neck level, the gravitational pull on the body is reduced by about 90%. This low-impact milieu, advocates claim, is especially good for arthritis patients, overweight exercisers and those recovering from injuries. Exercising in water keeps the body cooler, so it's often an option for pregnant women, who are especially advised not to permit themselves to get overheated during exercise. And it's more comfortable for everyone. Individuals can work at their own pace, since water provides its own built-in resistance: The harder you push against it, the harder it "pushes" back.

Exercising in water, done with proper effort, can burn as many calories as high-intensity workouts on dry land. "For a typical person, a water workout can provide the same or better aerobic benefits as one gets with running, and perhaps more so," says Dr. Robert Bielen, an Irvine orthopedist who prescribes such exercise for some of his patients. "But you have to be willing to exert yourself, not just float."

The number of calories burned varies, depending on intensity, body weight and other factors. "The more muscle groups you use, the more rapidly you can achieve an aerobic effect," says Bielen, who chairs the Sports Medicine and Science Committee of the men's U.S. Olympic water polo team.

Exercisers haven't always taken to aqua training like, well, ducks to water. Lynda Huey first designed a water routine for track-and-field stars recovering from sprained ankles and other injuries. She recalls: "Most of the athletes I worked with didn't want to come near the water." That was in 1983. She suspects they considered it a "sissy" workout. But as their bodies began to crave exercise, they decided to give it a try. In the process, they got hooked. Since then, such sports teams as the San Francisco 49ers have incorporated water workouts into their training routines.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Skeptics suggest that water's cooling effect on the body keeps the heart rate down at a level that makes workouts less effective at burning fat than other routines. Advocates counter that exercisers who work hard enough can burn plenty of fat.

Water exercise doesn't compare in popularity with such activities as walking, which now claims 20 million U.S. devotees. But it's gaining more than a toehold. Considering the minuscule risk of injury from low-impact water workouts, perhaps more exercisers should consider it, the AFA's Rosenbaum says.

Growing numbers of Southern Californians are doing just that, according to an informal poll of area health clubs. Program administrators say that the number of water-exercise classes has multiplied in the past few years due to member demand and an increased availability of aquatic instructors. The Hollywood YMCA offers a one-hour stretch-and-tone aquatic class and a basic water-exercise class. Along with other Ys, it also offers a "Twinges in the Hinges" class, a medically approved water program developed by the YMCA and the National Arthritis Foundation for arthritics. At Y's and other facilities, there are also postpartum water classes and adult and senior water-exercise classes.

Children can often jump in, too, if they are tall enough so that the water is no higher than chest level. Children take well to aqua training from about age 9, Huey finds.

Nationwide, the range of classes is staggering, says Ruth Sova, president of the Aquatic Exercise Assn., a Port Washington, Wis.-based organization of aquatic instructors, physical therapists and others involved in water exercise. "There is water walking, jogging, aerobics, toning, strength training, circuit training (aerobic exercise to build endurance interspersed with weight training), sports conditioning, deep-water running, deep-water exercise and aquatic-flexibility classes," she says. About 80% of water exercisers participate in organized classes, Sova says, while the rest go it alone in back-yard or public pools.

Programs vary greatly. Most mix aerobic conditioning exercises with muscle-toning movements. Huey's Water Power Workout begins with an optional shower warm-up and stretching of the hamstrings. Once in the pool, exercisers continue to warm up, bouncing gently. Next come lunges, leg kicks and swings, straddles and frog jumps. Interval training--such as 30 seconds running intensely, 30 seconds running slowly--build cardiovascular endurance. Poolside hamstring curls and flutter and scissor kicks, along with abdominal work, other muscle-toning moves and a cool-down period, wrap up the session, all performed in shallow water.

The pace is slower at a "Twinges in the Hinges" class. In a recent session at the Hollywood YMCA, instructor Trudy Sivick, 60-something and an arthritis patient, first led her students for a leisurely walk through the shallow indoor pool. Next came stretches, flutter kicks, underwater bicycling and several other routines; eventually, the students had worked every major muscle group.

Aqua-training programs seem to offer something for everyone--even if your bathing suit is straining at the seams--and you don't demand Olympic-caliber fitness levels.

"Water workouts can provide overall cardiovascular and muscle conditioning," says Linda Cassidy, an exercise physiologist who directs the water-aerobics program at Los Angeles' Stuart M. Ketchum Downtown YMCA. "They're ideal for those starting an exercise program or looking for a low-impact activity. Many use it as a supplement to other workouts. Some use it as a cross-training tool."

Well-conditioned people are attracted to water workouts, partly because they can rely on them to improve their skills in other activities. A cross-country skier can concentrate on sliding the feet along the bottom of the pool and swinging the arms, with an eye toward improved skiing performance. People with certain injuries can, while they're on the mend, maintain fitness and performance skills. For example, says Huey, "walkers can do water workouts in flotation vests and keep up their coordination."

There are exceptions. Huey advises people recovering from severe burns or people in casts to stay out of the water. "But athletes with almost any other injury, no matter how bad, can usually get in the water and do something."

Water workouts can be varied to keep boredom at bay. If changing a routine isn't enough, adding special equipment might do the job. The Wet Vest, worn like a sleeveless sweater, is designed to suspend the body in a submerged, upright position while keeping the head above water. The Aqua Jogger is a flotation belt used for deep-water walking and running routines. Spa Bells are hand-held devices that track smoothly through the water and provide resistance for upper-body exercises. There are also webbed gloves and hand-held weights, designed to increase resistance.

Proper water temperature is important when exercising, Sova says. Ideal temperature is 80 to 83 degrees, but arthritis patients should work out in water that's a bit warmer--86 to 92 degrees. Sova recommends that exercisers wear shoes--either special aquatic footwear, available at sporting-goods stores, or standard aerobic dance shoes.

Nina Barsky doesn't believe that water workouts are the perfect exercise but says they are close enough. She doesn't agonize over how many calories she burns during her exercises. However, she has discovered that her twice-weekly water workouts, plus the mile-long daily walks she takes with her husband, offer enough exercise to keep her bathroom scale reading well within the comfort zone.

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