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 Reaching the Most Vulnerable

Author By Kimberly Huff, MS, CSCS


The fitness industry has really changed in the last two months.  Fitness centers have found creative ways to reach out to members that are staying safe at home, many instructors have become “video stars”, and some instructors are even scheduling meetings through internet platforms to give the members the social component that is really needed during this time.

Meeting the needs of aquatic program participants has been a little bit more challenging.  Some people, although not many, may have been able to continue their programs in their home pool.  Those with a higher self-efficacy (greater confidence) with exercise, may have participated in a virtual lower impact land program or chair exercise class.  Land-based programs could be an appropriate alternative with the proper modifications.  Unfortunately, if those modifications were not offered it could have resulted in negative consequences. 

Those individuals with a lower self-efficacy who believe they are only able to exercise in the water most likely have been relatively inactive for the last two months.  It is this group that is of greatest concern.

Concern for the Most Vulnerable

Adults over the age 65 (sometimes 60 depending on the source) and those with underlying chronic conditions were identified as the “most vulnerable” during this crisis.  This “most vulnerable” group are also the people that often find greater success with aquatic exercise than land-based exercises. 

This group will also experience the adverse effects of inactivity more rapidly than those that are younger or do not have chronic conditions.  These effects of inactivity could include:

  • Decline in functional ability and balance
  • Decreases in cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and flexibility   
  • Increased pain with movement

The maintenance of chronic conditions, which was based on prior levels of physical activity, will also be affected. They may also experience changes in homeostatic reserve.  Homeostatic reserve is the overall ability to recover from illnesses, injuries and other stressors.

Reaching the Most Vulnerable

The good news is fitness centers and swimming pools are beginning to re-open.  However, there will be a whole new set of challenges.  Most facilities will be focused on maintaining social distancing, disinfecting equipment and commonly touched surfaces, and possibly requiring staff and members to wear mask and/or participate in screening prior to coming to the facility.  Some of the guidelines continue to encourage the “most vulnerable” to stay safe at home.

One of the greatest impacts on group exercise classes will be restrictions on class size to allow for social distancing.  This may significantly reduce the number of participants in a class at one time.  Some facilities may institute a policy for members to sign up for a class or operate on a “first come, first serve” basis.

The guidelines and restrictions are put in place to maintain the health and safety of the member and the staff.  Even with those guidelines in place, some members (and possibly some staff) may be very concerned about using the locker room or attending a group exercise class and choose to stay home.

Below are a couple suggestions for adjusting to the possible restrictions that may be placed on aquatic classes and ideas for reaching those that may not be able to attend classes, especially the “most vulnerable”.   The pros and cons of each suggestion are included:




Offer multiple classes to accommodate those unable to participate due to limited class size.

Participants will have several choices of class times.

May be limited by scheduling or instructor availability.

May also be limited when considering social distancing in the locker room as multiple classes usually results in crowded locker rooms.

Offer a virtual class (video) at the same time as the regular class. 

People that are accustomed to a regular class time would be able to continue to exercise at that time.  The virtual class could be a video of the aquatic instructor teaching a land-based class, providing necessary modifications that would be appropriate for the group.  Those participants that are not usually confident with land-based exercise may be more willing to participate if the class is taught by an instructor they know and trust. 

The fitness center, or at least the instructor, would have to have the capability of creating a video and a platform to post the video.

There may be cost, and legal issues associated with using internet formats. 

The participants would be required to have the skills and ability to access the video online.


Offer land-based home exercise programs for small groups using an internet platform (Zoom, Facetime etc.)

The program is taught live, so the instructor is able to provide modifications when necessary.

Participants may have more confidence with land-based exercise if provided by an instructor they know and trust.

The participants will have the opportunity to interact and socialize (to some extent) during the workout.


There may be cost, and legal issues associated with using internet formats.

The participants would be required to have the skills and ability to access the video online.


Offer a written land-based home exercise program.

The written program can be shared via email or regular mail for those without internet access.

Programs can be designed as weekly or monthly challenges to improve motivation.

Ability to participate will be based on their understanding of the exercises and individual motivation.


*The AEA Arthritis Foundation Program Leader Development course recommends that all Program Leaders become familiar with land-based exercises in the event the pool is not available.  This is a perfect time to put those skills to practice!

Communication is More Important Then Exercise

Offering recorded classes and virtual “live” programs through internet platforms are great opportunities to continue to engage those participants that may not be able or comfortable attending classes.  For those participants that do not have internet access, even a phone call with simple words of encouragement or offering a written home exercise program will go a long way toward their health and safety.  Making people feel valuable and helping them to remain connected with their fitness community is a key component to reaching the most vulnerable.

For more resources, information and ideas on fitness programming and safety concerns related to COVID-19, check out the AEA WaterWell pages at AEA’s website, https://aeawave.org/Articles-More/AEA-WaterWell



Kimberly Huff, MS, CSCS is the Director of Fitness and Wellness for Acts Retirement-Life Communities.  She is certified through ACSM, NSCA, AEA, and ACE.  She presents certification review courses and continuing education courses for ACSM and AEA and was a contributing author to the AEA AF Manual and the AEA Aquatic Fitness Professional Manual.

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