Managing Arthritis in the Pool

Saturday, May 09 2020

Arthritis is the leading cause of disability and physical limitation in the United States.  Exercise is universally recommended as an essential part of arthritis management, which is easier said than done for many sedentary individuals whose bodies are unaccustomed to movement.  Aqua Yoga for Arthritis is a gentle program designed to transition sedentary people into movement.   This program utilizes a pool noodle and is designed to improve joint range of motion (ROM) and manage pain, promoting a better quality of life.

Arthritis is as an inflammation of one or more joints, causing pain and stiffness that can worsen with age.  There are over 100 types of arthritis and related conditions.  Degenerative arthritis is typically a result of wear and tear on the joints and the most common type is osteoarthritis.  Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s own immune system attacks joints.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 54.4 million US adults have some sort of arthritis.  That is 23% of all adults.

One of these adults with arthritis is Christa Fairbrother, the creator of Aqua Yoga for Arthritis.  Living with arthritis, Christa credits her lifelong yoga practice for providing effective pain management skills and success in managing her disease.  “I had arthritis for more than 20 years before my diagnosis and had a hard time reconciling what I'd achieved with all my joint damage,” says Christa.  Inspired by her own success, she now helps others use the tools of yoga to manage their health.

Why Yoga?
As a form of exercise, yoga moves at a slower pace, making it ideal for arthritis sufferers who are beginning their journey of pain management through physical exercise.  Gentle yoga is good for people with arthritis and other kinds of chronic pain because they can modify their poses, including how long they hold them, according to how much pain and stiffness they're experiencing on a given day.  Medical experts recommend activities that focus on stretching, range-of-motion exercises and gradual progressive strength training, which is why yoga is an ideal choice of physical activities. 

Why Water?
Thanks to the upward forces of buoyancy, fitness activities in water are simply more comfortable for people because there is less impact on the joints.  All movement in water is resisted thanks to the water’s viscosity.  This means that muscles on both sides of a joint are targeted, promoting muscle balance and joint integrity, another big sell for arthritis management.  Additionally, the fear of falling can prevent people from participating in an exercise program.  The water provides a supportive environment in which people exercise with more confidence knowing that they aren’t going to fall and hurt themselves.  This is especially important in yoga, as participants will feel more empowered to utilize full range of motion in poses, which is the primary objective of arthritis exercise.

Benefits of Aqua Yoga
Aqua yoga is low-impact, if not zero-impact and this eliminates any concerns of further aggravating joints or causing more damage.  The slower pace of aqua yoga, compared to other aquatic activities, also limits the opportunity for someone to push themselves too hard, worsening their pain.  Balance and posture are easier to improve in an aqua yoga class, as opposed to a land class due to the supportive nature of water, as mentioned above.  Simply being in warn water feels good and connects people to a greater depth of mindfulness and breath awareness.  WATCH:  Christa explains the importance strong muscles for strong joints

The Importance of Cross-Training
People with arthritis are encouraged to vary their exercise activities to effectively manage their symptoms.  Aqua Yoga by itself many not effectively strengthen muscles around the joints to the degree that is needed. Other muscular conditioning activities may be required.   Low-impact activities that include cardiovascular exercise are also recommended to improve heart health, control weight and enhance mood.  Medical experts recommend avoiding activities that involve high impact exercise and repetitive motion.

Aqua Yoga for Arthritis:  Workout-at-a-Glance
Segment 1:  Warm-up
Christa prepares the body for exercise with a series of Warrior 1 poses that are performed dynamically in a walking series. 

Segment 2:  Warming the Spine
Transitioning from Mountain Pose, a series of poses are introduced that promote flexibility in the spine, including Spinal Rotation, Side-stretch, Cat, Cow and Cobra.

Segment 3:  Strength & Stretch
Strength and flexibility in the upper and lower body is achieved with a series of poses that include hip and shoulder openers, Rainbird flow and a Warrior II series. 

Segment 4:  Balance
The Tree pose is introduced and then flowed with side leg lifts to promote balance and stability. 

Segment 5:  Relaxation & Meditation
The practice concludes with an extended relaxation in Turtle pose, followed by soothing meditation. 

Fitmotivation extends a big thank you to Christa for sharing her passion and expertise in the practice of aqua yoga.  If you are interested in expanding your horizons with more in-depth education, Christa is one of the few providers to offer a certification course in aqua yoga.  If you are an aqua enthusiast and want to increase your knowledge about the practice and benefits of aqua yoga, Christa also offers a consumer course.  If you are ready to implement a yoga practice in your own pool, she also provides many other affordable poolside resources such as laminated cards that you can prop up and follow along with at your own pace and in your own preferred environment. If you want to expand your education and impact within aqua yoga for arthritis work one on one with Christa in her Aqua Yoga for Arthritis Course.


Author: Mark Grevelding is the founder of Fitmotivation. He is also a training specialist and consultant with the Aquatic Exercise Association’s (AEA). Mark has been active in the fitness industry for 22 years as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, international presenter and a continuing education provider for AEA, AFAA & ACE.