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By transferring elements of mindful practice to the warm water, you can help your clients profoundly reconnect to their physiological capacities and psycho-emotional selves.

Many people observing a mindful aquatic slow movement exercise session, such as Aquabalance, would think; ‘This looks too relaxing to achieve any real benefits. Isn’t faster movement with intense effort far more effective than slower movement with less effort?’

It’s an easy assumption to make, but appearances can be deceptive. Here we’ll explore why mindful aquatic slow movement exercise (MASME) programs are profoundly beneficial, both physically and neurologically.

Internationally, we are seeing a rise of MASME programs such as Aquabalance, Ai Chi, Aqua Kriya Yoga, Aqua Pilates, Water Healing Dance, Watsu and Agua Hara, to name just a few. So what do all these programs have in common? They all transfer elements of mindful movement practices into a warm aquatic environment.

The warm water exercise intensity effect

On immersion into warm water (29°C-35°C) certain fascinating physiological responses take place. As the body temperature rises, the heart starts to pump faster, causing the blood to warm and the vessels to dilate. This is partly due to the hydrostatic pressure that causes a dramatic shift of blood volume from the extremities of the body to the central thoracic region (Arborelius, Balldin, Lilja & Lundgren). This increases the central venous pressure, stroke volume and cardiac output. Once acclimatised, however, it leads to a decrease in heart rate. The combined influence of water temperature and hydrostatic pressure helps to explain why, at a given VO2 (maximum oxygen consumption), heart rate has been shown to be 17 to 20 beats per minute lower in water than on land.

Interestingly therefore, although cardiac output may be less, training intensity and physiological overload is not compromised. The heart pumps effectively the same amount of blood per minute as it does during the initiation of exercise. In fact, no movement at all is required by the individual in order to achieve this ‘30 per cent exercise intensity effect’. This is a welcome benefit for those that are usually immobile, sedentary or fearful of exercise due to chronic pain.

Immersion also has other benefits. Blood circulation is enhanced, due to the combination of buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure. Muscular relaxation is also greatly improved, which eases any nerves pinching the blood vessels, and in the process, aides muscles in ridding themselves of metabolic waste. When muscles are released and relaxed, and limbs are supported by buoyancy, an incredible freedom of effortless movement can be achieved. Individuals with limited flexibility often become exhilarated when experiencing a sudden increased range of movement that their joints are usually unable to perform on land. This enhanced mobility helps to explain the increased popularity of practising yoga in water. By making practices such as yoga accessible to more populations, aquatic slow movement exercise has the potential to deliver physiological and psycho-emotional gains to a wider demographic, which can only benefit our healthcare system.

Relaxation and pain relief

MASME programs that combine these hydrodynamic properties may enable clients to achieve efficient diaphragmatic breathing (often incorporated in mindful practice). Participants can realise effortless flowing movements combined with mindful breathing techniques, which can lead to a deep sense of relaxation and, often, pain relief. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for a greater sense of awareness through movement. On initial submersion into water, breathing requires more effort, as the lungs are under increased pressure, which assists in lung expansion. Participants can sense their breathing dimensions more keenly in water than on land, which accelerates the mindful awareness experience.

As the body moves through the warm water, the sensory nerves on the periphery of the skin are fully stimulated, considerably increasing proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness. Interestingly, studies on dementia have shown that slow movement through water can also have profound effects on an individual’s memory retainment, as well as their personal dimension awareness.

What’s happening in the brain?

So, what happens neurologically during practice of MASME programs?

Research has shown that mindful practice can re-wire the brain, which is comforting to know in an age when technology and our fast-paced lifestyles are taking up ‘mind space’. Mindful practices have numerous benefits, such as improving productivity, emotional intelligence and mental health. It may also help reduce insomnia, enhance immunity, correct eating disorders, reduce chronic pain and reverse ageing. The list is expanding, with new studies surfacing regularly. When brain scans measure the grey matter after long term regular mindful practice, they indicate that the areas associated with concentration, memory and senses improve, slowing down the ageing of the brain. Mindfulness grows the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

We have discussed how, during MASME programs, blood flow is shunted upwards from the lower limbs to the central thoracic area as circulation increases throughout the whole system. This, of course, includes a greater flow of oxygen to the brain. Interestingly enough though, when clients participate for the first time in MASME programs, they initially experience difficulty with coordination, concentration and balance. This is because the brain rewires as it senses the limbs experiencing a mass of resistance – an acclimatisation process known as neuroplasticity. To quote from Hebbie’s hypothesis, ‘The neurons that fire together, wire together’. Becoming more coordinated is essentially a matter of rewiring the neural circuits that control movement, and when the mind has spent most of the day ‘patrolling agendas’ at a faster speed to keep up with the internet age, slowing down requires some shifting of gears.

According to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, the brain is constantly rewiring itself, however shifting from a constant gravity environment to a supportive weightless buoyant environment challenges not only coordination, but also stabilisation. If anything it can be likened to leaving the planet earth and venturing into an outer space environment. The body naturally acclimatises to recruit core stabilising muscles in the new dynamic environment simply to maintain an upright vertical position.

One of the most profound benefits achieved through participating in MASME programs is improved breathing and posture. Respiratory function, oxygen consumption and core stabilisation is considerably challenged when moving vertically through the water. Studies by Len Kravitz have shown that there are significant improvements in VO2 max that can be compared to the effects gained from participating in chronic (regular and constantly re-occurring) exercise on land.

MASME programs globally are catering for a broad spectrum of clients, with astounding results still being explored and studied. There’s no denying though, that mindfulness in water leads to a greater fluid focus.

Tanja Luck has over 20 years’ experience as an active educator, with specific expertise in aquatic exercise therapy and wellbeing programs. She regularly delivers workshops to health professionals, remote communities and staff in spa resorts. Tanja is the founder of and the Health and Wellbeing Coordinator for vulnerable women’s health care in WA.

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