Results of an important new study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research find that patients with osteoarthritis (OA) can better manage their arthritis through regular, high-intensity aquatic exercise. 

It is commonly accepted that aquatic exercise is helpful to those living with arthritis. This new study, incorporating high intensity, interval aquatic training, demonstrates that even better outcomes can be attained, offering hope to the 27 million Americans who have the condition. 

"Having osteoarthritis patients walking against a systematically high and low resistance in water resulted in significant reduction in pain, improved mobility, balance and function," said Eadric Bressel, professor and clinical research scientist at Utah State University. “This same kind of high-intensity interval training on land would be unfathomable because of the load-elicited pain."

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"Everyone can find a pool. Millions of people with arthritis can maintain better health just by walking and running in water. As they get stronger, they may feel more confident to exercise on land, too," noted Thomas M. Lachocki, CEO of non-profit National Swimming Pool Foundation, which funded the study.

An aquatic treadmill was used to test the hypothesis of the benefit of high intensity aquatic training for OA patients, which allowed researchers to maintain a high level of control and produce the same energy demands as land-based exercise. The study was based on a single-group double pre-test/post-test design whereby participants completed a four-week non-exercise control period followed by a six-week aquatic exercise intervention period. 

Participants all had osteoarthritis and underwent three training sessions on the aquatic treadmill per week. Joint pain, balance, function, and mobility were tested before and after exercise and non-exercise conditions.

In comparison with pretests, participants displayed reduced joint pain and improved balance, function and mobility. The same benefits were not observed after the non-exercise control period. All participants completed the six-week program with 100 percent exercise adherence. No one reported adverse effects beyond typical mild-to-moderate muscle fatigue and soreness associated with high-intensity interval training. 

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Motor functions and static balance also improved during the course of the study, with participants able to stand from a seated position more easily, lunge more quickly on one leg, and walk on land with greater speed. In fact, after the completion of the six weeks, participants' gait speed was nearly identical to that of those without osteoarthritis.

Click here to read the study.  

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.