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When it comes to social distancing in group exercise, the water presents a different proposition to land-based classes. Aqua fitness specialist Claire Barker-Hemings looks at some techniques to keep classes fun and effective, as well as safe.




  • It is necessary for everyone on the team to follow a consistent approach to social distancing in classes to ensure that participants understand what is required of them 
  • Be prepared to teach sessions that don’t require equipment, because even if the facility allows its use, some participants may not feel comfortable using equipment that others have used 
  • If the facility you work at has not already done so, it may be worth providing participants with some clearly written instructions detailing how they can get online to reserve their spot in class 
  • A number of techniques can be employed to prevent participants travelling in the water and contravening the facility’s social distancing policy 
  • These techniques include lane marker ropes or marker cones on deck, as well as exercise modifications that create variation in intensity and movement patterns, without the need for travelling. 



Like so many industries, the fitness world has been turned upside down by COVID-19. The entire industry shut down overnight. Most of us knew it was coming, as operating was becoming more challenging due to restrictions and rules being rolled out by centres, following guidelines from state and territory governments. In Melbourne, after the initial shutdown, we had a glimmer of hope with a brief re-opening, but then, just over two weeks later, we were closed again. In the meantime, other parts of Australia have been able to open and operate under strict guidelines. 

Social distancing seems to be here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least. As part of the overall strategy to slow the spread of the virus, numbers at facilities have been limited by regulations laid down by the appropriate authorities. In land-based group fitness and gym settings, social distancing has been achieved by marking spots on the floor to indicate the areas within which participants must stay. In the pool, however, it is a little more challenging, since it would be difficult to place markers on the pool floor and it is not unusual for a person to ‘drift’ from the place they started due to turbulence created during the workout. Staying on one spot in the water is quite a challenge! 



“Social distancing seems to be here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least, and that applies to the pool as well” 



As group fitness leaders, we need to instil confidence by adhering to the rules outlined by the club or centre’s management.Our classes can still be effective, engaging and fun, but it is necessary for everyone on the team to follow a consistent approach in order to set a good example and ensure that participants also understand what is required of them. 


Managing the logistics

I have spoken to a few of my aqua instructor friends in Australia and the US to see how they are managing social distancing during their sessions. Here are a few of the points that have been raised: 


COVID-19 plan

If you work for a facility you will almost certainly find that a plan has already been created and that you have a responsibility to familiarise yourself with it. If you run private classes, it is recommended that you create your own plan to ensure that you are implementing the guidelines set out by the regulating authority. 



I have found the policy on equipment to differ centre to centre, with some clubs using equipment and others opting to use none. There is no sharing of equipment during the class and it is cleaned afterwards. Others are not permitting use of the facility’s equipment or encouraging clients to bring their own. In addition to any existing guidelines, we need to be aware of how our members feel, especially given the older demographic of many aqua groups. Some will be happy to use equipment, whereas others will not. As professionals, we need to put our own feelings on the matter aside and be respectful of the fact that some people are feeling vulnerable and worry about using equipment that other people may have used. 


Class numbers

As mentioned, the appropriate authorities are stipulating the number of people who can be in a facility at any given time and demanding that the members be appropriately socially distanced. In most cases this has resulted in class numbers being far smaller than before. Although this is not something we would ever have hoped for, a silver lining is that we have the opportunity to get to know our members better and give each individual more attention. 


Class times

Many classes have been reduced in duration to allow for people exiting and entering the building at different times, and to ensure that there is appropriate time for cleaning of the workout space and equipment between pool sessions. A number of centres have not opened the change/shower facilities to ensure that members do not congregate in one area, while others have restricted the number of people able to use the changerooms. In my experience, it is not uncommon for aqua participants to simply wrap themselves in towels and head home to shower anyway, so for some the new restrictions have not impacted their routine. In the colder months, particularly, it is not ideal for participants to hang around in wet swimmers, so there’s no harm in reminding them at the close of class that they should keep post-workout socialising both distanced and to a minimum and head straight home for a hot shower. 


We need to be aware of how our members feel, especially given the older demographic of many aqua groups”


Booking system

Many clubs have implemented booking systems to control class numbers, with this system varying from facility to facility. Be aware that this development may cause anxiety among some of your older participants, especially if the system is online. If they lack confidence with using technology, they may harbour fears of missing out on their favourite session. 


If the facility you work at has not already done so, it may be worth providing participants with some clearly written – and even illustrated – instructions detailing exactly how they can get online to reserve their spots in your class. During shutdown, when we started delivering sessions online, I provided my aqua participants with written instructions on how to use zoom and was pleasantly surprised by how many older participants enthusiastically embraced this very different way of doing things. As we know, group workouts can be as much an opportunity to socialise as they are to exercise – and for many people isolation wasn’t going to put a stop to that! 


Staying fun and effective (as well as safe)

Here are some practical ideas/solutions to help keep the classes fun, safe, effective and engaging: 



To help with spacing, the lane ropes can be retained to ensure that each line of people is kept apart (most pool lanes are 2.5m wide). I have even seen one pool in South America that also places lane ropes across the swimming lanes, effectively creating a grid that gives each member their own square of workout space. 


Alternately, different coloured cones or other items placed on deck and spaced the appropriate distance apart can be used to ensure that each participant has a marker to help them stay within their line. Uplifting messages or funny quotes can be placed on the cones to give them more meaning and take some of the ‘formality’ of simply social distancing away. We are in a health and wellness industry, mental perception is important. 

Different coloured cones or other items can be used as markers to help participants stay in their lines


Uplifting or funny messages written on the cones can soften the ‘formality’ of social distancing protocols


Pool depth

Depth may be an issue where it wasn’t previously. Due to participants being spaced further apart, and therefore out in their own workout zone, some may find themselves a little deeper or even shallower than they would normally be. If this is an inevitability in the class you teach and you have participants who are nervous exercising in deeper water, it may be worth asking at the start of the session for those who feel more comfortable working out in ‘the deep’ to volunteer to move to that area. To create a fully inclusive session for everyone, plan teaching tips for people that find themselves in transitional or deep water. 


Swap travelling moves for stationary ones

In so far as class structure is concerned, for the time being it is a good idea to keep the participants on the spot. People ‘travel’ through the water at different speeds depending on body composition and fitness levels, so it will be almost impossible to maintain the appropriate space once the water starts to move in a class environment and drifting begins to happen. There are many ways to add variety to a class without ‘travel’ and without equipment (should your centre not allow the use of it).

When teaching an aqua session, applying the following modifications to each move will create variation in intensity and movement patterns, without travelling: 


  • Working position of the move – performing each movement in rebound, neutral or suspended will load the body in different ways and change the focus of the movement. 
  • Surface area/speed – changing the shape of the body (e.g. hands – slice, fist, paddle, web) or the part of the body presented to the water, and varying the tempo to which the movement is performed, will also change the focus of the movement. 
  •  Around the body – using all planes of movement will give a balanced workout for the entire body. 
  •  Enlarge the movements – increasing the range of motion of each movement will almost certainly use more power, as drag forces increase. This is also a great way to encourage more flexibility around a joint. 
  • Turn the movements – instead of adding travel, face different directions. When your participants face in other directions it challenges them, as they may not be able to see you as clearly, therefore they may need to remember a routine and listen more intently to you (it may also have the added benefit of them cutting down on their talking to others!). It is a great way to look at their posture from another perspective. 


During these changing times, as fitness professionals it is our role to adapt, be flexible and above all be compassionate. Many people will have strong feelings about COVID-19, including ourselves, and remaining neutral, following guidelines and being clear with our instructions will help people feel comfortable and happy to return to our sessions.



Claire Barker-Hemings 

Claire is a highly regarded aqua fitness exercise specialist, presenter and Pilates instructor. She trains people of all ages, sharing her passion and knowledge of water, fitness and wellbeing. She has been teaching since 1997, planning and delivering aqua fitness workshops and new instructor training across Australia and internationally. / / 


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