Swimming is popular, there's no doubt about that. Three million Brits dive into a pool every week, compared with the 1.8 million who hop on a bike. For many people, however, it has a reputation as more of a family leisure activity than a serious way to get fit. Efforts to counteract this with water workout classes such as aqua aerobics have seemed fusty and unfit for purpose for a number of years – lines of ladies, perms protected by swimming caps, lifting their arms up and down through the water does not look like a reliable route to bikini biceps.
Even if you swim with purpose and are training for an event, or recording your times, repetitive lengths can become dull. Yet there are huge benefits to be gained from exercising in water, for people of any size, shape, weight, fitness and experience. Some new types of water workouts are emerging to capitalise on this.
Swimming itself, even at a gentle pace, will burn about 200 calories in half an hour. Doing other exercises in the water, which can be grouped loosely under the banner of "aqua fitness", can be a much more effective workout than doing the same on dry land. Water is 800 times denser than air, so we have to make more effort, and therefore expend more energy, to move about in a pool. Jogging through water, for example, will burn up to 11.5 calories per minute compared to the 8 calories you might get rid of on land.
When you consider this, the popularity of those aqua aerobics classes begins to make sense. But while they are struggling to attract new (and younger) recruits, so-called "aqua fitness" is on the up.
One wonders if it is really necessary to rebrand water workouts to get the most out of them. Is it not enough just to get in the pool and have a bit of fun splashing around? "Aqua fitness is a better phrase than aqua aerobics," says four-time Olympian Karen Pickering. "It is mixing up swimming and exercising to get fit and has a broader appeal than just jumping up and down in the water to music."
Pickering is promoting a new range of kit for working out in the water from Speedo, which has created the products because aqua fitness is growing in popularity. "When I sat poolside, I noticed the fitness swimmers know how to swim, but they don't know how to use the equipment, and they are afraid to ask," says Pickering. "They don't want to look silly, and they think that because they're not an elite athlete, they shouldn't use it."
The embarrassment factor is certainly the first hurdle in improving your water workout. It's one thing attending a dedicated aqua fitness class, but pausing in the shallow end to pump out a few shoulder raises with Aqua Dumbbells (£16) is something else, and that's before you strap on the Aqua Belt (£18) and start working your core in deep water.
Pickering points out that gym rookies are usually afraid of looking foolish, too, and soon get over their initial fears. It should be the same in a pool. If you're not sure what to do with the equipment,
the lifeguards, usually keen swimmers themselves, will direct you.
Her next argument is even more convincing. Swimming is not always easy for women to squeeze into a lunch hour because of the time it takes to wash their hair afterwards, but Pickering says that you could just get into the pool with a friend and do some of the exercises while you're chatting, without getting your hair wet. Much more appealing than dripping water all over the keyboard.
The best water exercises are the simple ones and you will probably recognise them from the gym or other exercise classes. Use the dumbbells or small disc weights to raise your arms up in front of you, out to the side in lateral raises, or to punch through the water. Use the resistance to get good arm definition, which walking or cycling won't help with.
Exercising in water can ramp up your fitness and muscle tone, but it's also a good option for anyone recovering from an injury, or who is nervous about sustaining one, as well as for less fit folk keen to start exercising.
Zumba dance classes were popular with this crowd from the beginning, and now Aqua Zumba classes are making a similar, er, splash. The class launched late last year in 24 Virgin Active health clubs and combines salsa, merengue, reggaeton and other Latin beats for a dance class that makes the most of the water's resistance. In a one-hour class, participants might burn 500 calories.
"Pushing against the resistance of the water while performing signature Zumba moves, participants can expect a whole body workout," says instructor Maria Browning. "It's about stretching, twisting and laughing."
Browning believes that this new approach to aqua aerobics is revamping its image. It is also a good choice for pregnant women. Getting in a pool can reduce the risk of illnesses including cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as being an effective stress reliever.
Britain's swimming body, the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), is trying to educate water babies on the best ways to work out in the water with their Swimfit programme, an online resource that outlines structured pool workout sessions. The 10-week programme includes advice on measuring and tracking your swims, and videos on technique. If you go to the pool with a purpose other than your standard 20 lengths of breaststroke at tortoise speed, you're more likely to put some effort in and return for more.
There's another way to get the most out of a water workout. It is more glamorous and more kitsch, and requires sequins and eye make up. It is synchronised swimming, which is sure to be a hit event in the upcoming Olympics. The number of competitive synchro swimmers in the UK has risen from 585 last year to 697, and for beginners there are 112 ASA clubs offering the sport in England.
There was a surge in the popularity of synchronised swimming after the Beijing Olympics, and 20,000 new recruits signed up to the ASA in the UK. It is a very demanding full body workout and requires grace, poise and rhythm, but where swimming lengths might get boring, synchro and these other water workout classes should keep you guessing.