Programming water workouts for mental agility

A long and fulfilling life is partly dependent on achieving optimal function of both body and brain. With the use of innovative training methods, aqua fitness classes can deliver workouts for both, says Dominic Gili.

The goal of every aqua fitness class is to strengthen the body, improve performance and encourage social activity. But is your class also designed to exercise the brain?

According to studies by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australians are living longer than ever before. As a result, the prevalence of degenerative brain disorders is also increasing. Yet compared with the wealth of information and research on maintaining a healthy body, there is far less information or research available on maintaining a healthy brain.

In an endeavour to improve or at least maintain brain function, many people choose to exercise the brain by attempting the daily crossword or Sudoku, learning a new language, or by playing Nintendo brain training games or online scrabble. But is this enough?

Exercise and brain health

Research gathered in the past decade has highlighted the beneficial relationship between exercise and a healthy brain.

Studies have proved that after the age of 60 an area of the brain called the hippocampus may reduce in size by around 1 to 2 per cent annually1. The hippocampus plays an important role in consolidating information from short-term memory into long-term memory and is associated with emotions and processes such as forming, organising and storing memories. This may explain why, having lost as much as 20 per cent of their nerve connections, an 80-year-old may have problems with memory function.

The good news is that researchers have identified exercise as one of the most effective ways of maintaining or even improving healthy brain function. A 2011 12-month study by Erikson and colleagues showed that people who exercised for 40 minutes, three times a week grew their hippocampus by two per cent compared with the 1.4 per cent decline in size for those who did not exercise2.

Benefits of warm water immersion

The numerous health benefits of warm water immersion have been well documented, and recent research conducted at Washington State University3 has reinforced these findings.

The nervous system – the brain’s messenger network – benefits from being immersed in warm water due to the balance of the sympathetic nervous system (which escalates under stress) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes calm) that such immersion achieves. Similar to meditation, this balanced state has been associated with improved memory, enhanced cognitive process and increased concentration.

Aqua fitness classes combine the benefits of exercise and warm water immersion to offer a unique workout opportunity. Two innovative aqua training methods to improve brain function are:

  • Choreographed routines
  • Counterintuitive movements.

Choreographed routines

Activity Protection against dementia
Cycling 0%
Swimming 0%
Playing golf 0%
Reading 35%
(4 times/weekly)
Dancing 76%

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that ‘frequent dancing makes us smarter’4. Conducted over 21 years, the research examined the relationship between a range of leisure activities and the risk of dementia and other related conditions in a group of 469 subjects over the age of 75 who displayed no existing signs of dementia. The results were surprising:

Of all the physical activities that offered good cardiovascular benefits, dancing was the only one that also improved mental function and therefore offered the best protection against dementia.

The reason for these impressive results is that dancing and other similar choreography-based activities often require split-second, rapid-fire decision-making, which occurs when learning new choreography or unrehearsed variations of known choreography within a routine.

Aqua group fitness classes are closely aligned with dance lessons in that movement and choreography are combined as an enjoyable form of exercise.

It is important, therefore, for instructors to keep routines fresh and varied, to not only challenge the bodies and brains of participants, but also their own. For some fun and easy-to-follow aqua choreography inspiration, go to

Counterintuitive movements

One method to ensure that participants are engaging their body and brain is to choreograph various movements that require the upper and lower body to work in a way that is counterintuitive.

In order to understand a counterintuitive movement, it is helpful to first define an intuitive move. Intuitive moves are those that come naturally and require very little concentration to co-ordinate. For example, when we walk and run we naturally coordinate the opposite arm and leg to ensure the body and brain communicate with minimal effort to produce forward movement while maintaining balance and stability.

Counterintuitive moves often require greater concentration for participants and hence greater brain function in order to coordinate the movement. In the following four common aqua moves, the intuitive version, and then the counterintuitive version (featuring simple yet effective variations to challenge participants) are shown.

Cycling (PHOTOs 1 & 2)

Intuitive: in the water, legs cycle to move body forwards and breaststroke arms naturally assist forward movement.

Counterintuitive: legs cycle to move body forwards with reverse breaststroke arms countering the forward movement by pushing the water forward and dragging the body back.

At this stage participants often ask ‘which way should I be moving?’ The answer is, there are three potential outcomes that will depend on the individual:

  1. If the legs are cycling with more force than the arms are pushing with, the body will move forward.
  2. If the arms are pushing the water forward with more force than the legs are cycling, then the body will move backwards.
  3. If the arms and legs are working with equal force then the body will not move at all.

Flutter kicking (PHOTOs 3 & 4)

Intuitive: legs flutter kick to move body backwards naturally; reverse breaststroke arms assist by pushing the water forwards.

Counterintuitive: legs flutter kick to move body backwards with breaststroke arms countering the backward movement by pulling the water in an attempt to move the body forward. Again, with this scenario, one of the three potential outcomes detailed above (in the Counterintuitive cycling section) will result.

Cross country ski (PHOTOs 5 & 6)

Intuitive: opposite arm and leg are co-ordinated to work forward and back.

Counterintuitive: legs work forwards and backwards while long lever arms abduct from the hips to just below the surface of the water and then adduct back to hips.

Star Jumps (PHOTOs 7, 8, 9 & 10)

Intuitive: arms and legs abduct and adduct together within a jumping movement.

Counterintuitive: arms and legs abduct and adduct in opposite ‘directions’ within a jumping movement, i.e. when the legs are together the arms are apart, and when the legs are apart the arms are together.

This simple checklist will help you ensure that your aqua class is exercising participants' brains as well as their bodies:

  • combine old and new routines to keep participants' attention
  • program fun choreographed routines that require participants to stay in time
  • challenge participants coordination with counterintuitive moves that require attention and focus.

By keeping your participants on their toes, you’ll be helping them – and yourself – to live a long life with a healthy body and a healthy brain.

  • Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Voss MW, et al. ‘Aerobic fitness is associated with hippocampal volume in elderly humans’, Hippocampus. 2009
  • Erickson KI, Voss MW, et al. ‘Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Jan. 31, 2011.
  • Becker BE, Hildenbrand K, Sanders JP. ‘Biophysiologic Effects of Warm Water Immersion’, International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, Volume 3, Issue 1, February 2009
  • Verghese J, Lipton RB, Katz MJ, Hall CB, Derby CA, Kuslansky G, Ambrose AF, Sliwinski M, Buschke H. ‘Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly’ New England Journal of Medicine 2003; 348:2508-2516. June 19, 2003.


Dominic Gili
Named Australian Fitness Network’s Author of the Year 2012, Dom’s passion for aqua fitness is contagious. He has delivered dynamic water workouts since 1993, and now presents training to new and existing instructors across Australia. The founder of and author of numerous articles, Dom continually aspires to inspire. Visit the Facebook page ‘aquaFitnessOnline’ for more information.