Improving Cardiovascular Health with Water Immersion

Today’s society is faced with a growing epidemic of people presenting with multiple cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides. This combination of risk factors is termed metabolic syndrome, which is present in 56 million U.S. adults and associated with a three-fold greater risk of cardiovascular mortality. Added to this state of metabolic dysfunction is a state of chronic physical inactivity. These risk factors, in part, cause physical and functional changes to the blood vessels that contribute to increased cardiovascular disease risk. Indeed, in people with metabolic syndrome, the blood vessels become stiffer, and they become less effective in contracting and relaxing over time.

Researchers have shown that land-based exercise such as walking, running, or cycling over 8-12 weeks, three times per week, for an hour per time is effective in lowering blood pressure and improving the health of the blood, in particular lowering the stiffness of the blood vessels. Aquatic exercise is an attractive form of exercise for to help combat obesity, given the elevated risk of injuries in obese individuals from exercising on land. Aquatic exercise is known to be effective in improving physical fitness and have favorable effects on body composition. Thus, the Chantler Lab at West Virginia University, set out to examine how effective deep-water running, a form of low-impact training, could improve blood vessel health in people with metabolic diseases.

The study recruited 12 individuals with metabolic syndrome who participated in an eight-week deep-water exercise-training program for three days/ week, for one hour/day with the intensity of exercise gradually building up every two weeks. In all individuals, blood vessel health and physical fitness was measured before and after the intervention.

Importantly, the study showed that deep water running was just as effective as land-based aerobic exercise in reducing the stiffness of the blood vessels in individuals with metabolic syndrome. Although long-term aquatic based exercise training studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of lowering cardiovascular disease risk, the reduction in blood vessel stiffness after eight weeks is an important step in improving the health of people with metabolic diseases. As such, organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine should highlight the use of aquatic-based exercise as a ‘medicine’ to improve cardiovascular health in individuals who are obese with metabolic diseases.

This article was written by our scholar partner, Paul D. Changler, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Division of Exercise Physiology, School of Medicine, West Virginia University as part of an aquatic treatise, Water Immersion Works®: Research-Based Health Benefits of Aquatic Immersion and Activity.

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