To answer the question of which one is better than the other, first we have to define swimming and aqua aerobics. Swimming is the activity of moving your arms and legs through the water in an effort to propel yourself forward. Aqua Aerobics is the activity of doing land-based aerobics in the water. So both swimming and aqua aerobics use water as a medium for physical activity. The difference is mainly in the length. While aqua aerobics is mostly done on spot, swimming is done in long distances. Another important difference is that in aqua aerobics you are mostly on the surface, while in swimming you have to stay submerged under the water. So swimming is more skill-based than aqua aerobics which almost anyone, regardless of their skill level, can do. Second, we have to understand how water resistance works, in order to determine which type of workouts utilizes water medium better. Water provides a slow and gradual overload on the muscular system. That means the intensity pretty much depends on how hard you work and how fast you move. For example, if you do standing leg kicks in a very slow motion, you probably won't feel any effort. On the other hand, doing the same movement on land, however slow, would still put load on your muscles due to gravity.
To put this question in more clear terms, I'll list the cons and pros of each workout depending on what you want to achieve.
More resistance means harder work, better muscle toning and more endurance. When it comes to which exercise creates more resistance, swimming will have the edge. Unless you are using some sophisticated equipment in your aqua aerobics that makes working out really hard, nothing comes close to swimming. That is because swimmers pull water with the aim of moving their bodies forward. So there is a well defined and constant resistance that enables swimmers to do laps. Whereas when you do aqua aerobics the water pressure is not constant as you are not actually in a constant state of forward motion and intensity would rather be defied by your own efforts. Another reason why I think swimming is better in terms of toning your muscles, is because swimming movement itself is also constant. Aqua aerobics is a set of different exercises that target different muscle groups at a time. In swimming you will be working the same muscles for the entire session. That is why swimmers have lean, toned bodies. But, if you don't aim for this type of workouts, if you are recovering from injury, or have a medical condition that prevents you from doing laps, or any other reason, then aqua aerobics is better for you. Another area where aqua aerobics has the edge is that it gives you more freedom of choosing which muscles to work and when.
This is another important aspect to understand before deciding which workout is better for your needs. Swimming requires skills, not just to float, but to do coordinated movements as well. Whereas aqua aerobics can be done by almost anyone, regardless of their swimming level. Even in deep water, you can use a float jacket or a belt. So aqua aerobics has the edge because it is available for almost everyone. Unlike swimming, which has a learning curve.
Fun is a subjective term. What is fun for someone is boring to someone else. So we all have different perspectives as to what constitutes fun. But to speak generally, I think less people would enjoy the idea of doing the same movement for long period of time, without interacting with anyone and while watching the bottom of the pool or the feet of other swimmers. If you are looking for fun, then aqua aerobics is definitely for you. Unlike swimming, every time you get to do something completely different and you never get bored. If you are in a class, you will exercise with a group of people, you get to interact with them and keep each other motivated. For many people, fitness is a social activity as well.
In summary, both swimming and aqua aerobics have their cons and pros. While aqua aerobics offers less skill and less resistance, it gives more fun, more variety and more freedom than swimming. Swimming is an endurance sport, you can do it for hours, and it's excellent for toning your muscles and improving your overall health, but it does require learning and mastering and it isn't fun for everyone.
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