Health & Family

Dowd YMCA water aerobics class is anything but ‘easy’

First come the squeals.

The cold pool at the Dowd YMCA in Charlotte feels downright frigid some days.

We always complain about it when we jump in. We warm up quickly when our teacher starts shouting orders. Then we spend the next hour complaining about her.

Army drill sergeants could learn from Allison Lilly, whose deep-water aerobics classes offer a high-intensity workout in a low-impact setting.

“Run across the pool as fast as you can, and when you reach the other side, mountain climb back,” she yells. “You should be out of breath by now – you should be dying!”

Forget any notion about water aerobics belonging to little old ladies.

This workout challenges tennis players with bum knees, middle-age runners with aching backs and younger fitness buffs looking for a break from pounding pavements, elliptical machines and bikes.

Class takes place in the deep end of the pool. Most people wear a flotation belt, which lets you do all the moves without feeling like you’re going to sink.

A few incredibly vigorous types, including Lilly when she jumps in, go beltless.

Lilly structures the class like boot camp in water. We run, bike and cross-country ski, using our bodies as bikes and skis. We jump rope, do jumping jacks and kickbox. We lift weights and struggle through situps. All in the pool.

Intervals include swimming across the pool, stopping to do 10 pushups on the side, then running back.

“I just fell in love with it,” says Pam Brennan, a former marathon runner and triathlete who turned to the water class after knee surgery four years ago. “I found I could get my heart rate up, and at the same time it works all the muscles in my body. “It’s strengthened and firmed everything and my energy level is better than it was when I was running marathons.

“And I love the people in the class. I feel like I can get a great workout with friends of all ages. It’s something that everyone can do on their own level.”

Intensity without injury

Other YMCA branches, aquatic centers and gyms locally and nationally offer deep-water aerobics. The classes are as intense or as low-key as the instructor and participants.

Those of us who crave sweaty land exercise want to capture that intensity as much as we can in the pool – without injury – and our doctors say we should.

Calorie-burning counts vary depending on your weight and exertion level. You’re constantly fighting the water’s resistance, which makes movement harder and tones muscles that often get neglected in other workouts.

If you don’t belong to a place that offers water classes, you could try some of these exercises in your own pool or club during adult swim time. If you get a few others to join in, it won’t embarrass your kids as much.

There is something to be said for the structure of group exercise and an instructor who keeps pushing. And with all activity underwater, you can be clumsy and no one will notice. Good luck with that in Zumba class.

Lilly is quick to caution people not to hurt themselves. But if you’re healthy and aerobically fit, she expects you to work hard. And she’ll do what it takes to motivate you.

“I know what’ll get y’all moving,” she said as the class plodded along one day. “Pretend you’re racing to the swim-up bar at the hotel pool.

“And you’re being chased by sharks!”

Or many other times:

“How y’all feeling?” she asks.

“Terrible! Horrible!” we whine.

“Good!” she says.

‘You’re killing me!’

The class is filled with personalities. It’s mostly women, but a few men are regulars. Some people come for a few sessions to work out injuries. Some very fit pregnant women come for a lower impact workout.

Grandmothers are well represented. A few hang off to the side, working out at a more moderate pace.

And some leave younger class members sputtering in their wake.

Take Barbara Campbell, a retired nurse practitioner who swims three days a week, walks four and spends many nights and weekends square dancing. Campbell, 74, is the unofficial class president. She warmly greets and welcomes newcomers, tells great jokes and races through the pool at a healthy clip.

She has no qualms about scolding the teacher.

“You’re killing me, Allison!” Campbell calls out as she dashes through the water. “What in the world is wrong with you today?”

“There’s too much talking going on,” Lilly yells back. “If you’re talking you’re not working hard enough.”

Lilly, 49, exudes intensity in all of her classes and despite her students’ groaning, is an extremely popular instructor. Besides swimming, she teaches cycling and hip-hop.

She started her fitness career in college and racked up a few injuries along the way.

In 2007 a spinal stress fracture forced her to quit teaching for six months and pushed her into the pool. As she swam, she watched a water aerobics class.

“I knew the instructor. She talked me into joining them. I was hooked,” Lilly says. “Even though I had taught land fitness for many years, I had never tried water aerobics … my excuse was the same excuse that I always hear: ‘Water aerobics is too easy and is for older people.’ I learned that day that that is not true.”

She became certified in water fitness and now teaches other instructors.

“This class is the only reason I come to the Dowd,” says Lauren Roeder, 30, a country-club chef who lives in the Steele Creek area and has been a regular for about three years. She also bikes and plays tennis.

“It’s an amazing aerobic workout,” she said. “ Allison brings out a drive in me that I didn’t know I had. I push myself harder in this class than I would in an independent swim or workout.”

As the class finishes, we lift our rubbery limbs out of the pool. Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s alive.

And we remember that we really do like Lilly. For now.

“Thank you, Allison,” we say sweetly, often in unison. “See you next time.”