Feature Article - January 2007
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Beyond the Lap Lane

Get more people in the pool with fresh aquatic programming for adults

By Stacy St. Clair

Water relaxation

In addition to helping patrons overcome their fear of water, aquatic facilities can go a long way to easing the pain of people who suffer from fibromyalgia or other chronic conditions.

Fibromyalgia is a widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue disorder whose cause is still unknown. Though patients often complain of aching all over, the most common pain sites are the neck, back, shoulders, pelvic girdle and hands. In addition to pain, symptoms include fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, irritable bowels and bladder problems.

Experts estimate that roughly 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. population suffers from the chronic condition. It affects women more often than men, but it knows no gender or racial boundaries.

For many fibromyalgia patients, water exercise may be the only treatment they receive. There is so much mystery and misunderstanding surrounding the condition that patients often are left to manage the pain on their own through nutrition, alternative medicine and exercise.

Until there is a cure for fibromyalgia, the most important step for improving symptoms is lifestyle adaptation. Exercise is critical, but often too painful to attempt.

This is where aquatic facilities can play a key role. Water offers a viable fitness option in addition to providing pain relief. In water, 90 percent of a person's body weight is relieved and the swimmer becomes buoyant. The buoyancy supports the body and allows the bather to make larger movements. It also eliminates the weight-bearing impact felt on land.

Water therapies have proven so effective, forward-thinking aquatic centers have tailored classes for other ailments besides fibromyalgia. There are now programs tailored for people suffering from arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome and other afflictions.

Aqua yoga instructor Cynthia Bialek knows first-hand the benefits of water exercise. More than a decade ago, she was an avid exerciser and land-class fitness instructor. Step classes, yoga, personalized training—she did it all.

"I was overdoing it for sure," she said.

Bialek maintained her busy schedule until she was felled by deep pain and exhaustion. Her symptoms would later be diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, but giving a name to the problems did not relieve her burden.

The Virginia woman was a fitness expert—she believed in the power of exercise and its health benefits. Her condition left her unable to work out. Merely getting herself to the bathroom would leave her exhausted.

Someone suggested she try water jogging, which would be easier on her joints. Before her diagnosis, it would have been an easy workout. But, with her illnesses, the class required too much effort.

"It put me back in bed for three days," Bialek said.

The struggle lasted for three years until one day when Bialek returned to the pool and began doing some of the yoga poses she taught in land classes. It felt good, both physically and emotionally, to move her muscles again.

She needed to get back in touch with her body, without bouncing, loud music or splashing. She liked that the poses allowed her to hear her own breath and be conscious of every movement.

"It was so calming to me," she said. "I challenged myself to do some more advanced moves. My joints opened and my muscles stretched just enough to make it feel good."