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Interview with Mary E. Sanders, PhD (excerpt)

The director of WaterFit/Wave Aerobics and Golden Waves discusses her career and how water exercise can change the lives of older adults.

The director of WaterFit/Wave Aerobics and Golden Waves discusses her career and how water exercise can change the lives of older adults

Mary Sanders gets excited about water fitness.
Mary Sanders gets excited about water fitness.

Mary E. Sanders, PhD, FACSM, RCEP, is associate professor and clinical exercise specialist in the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is the director of WaterFit, an associate editor of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. Sanders serves as an advisory board member for International Council on Active Aging, is a columnist for The Journal of Active Aging, and is the education director for Mizuno, Japan. Sanders conducts research in water fitness and medical exercise programs and trains instructors internationally. She is certified as an ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist. Active Aging Today asked Sanders about her accomplished career as a water fitness pioneer.


How did you get involved in creating water fitness programs?

I grew up in a family of caring people whose lives centered on medicine and healing. My Aunt Anna was a nurse who worked in partnership with my Aunt Mary, a family physician. As a child I remember sitting under her giant desk while listening to consultations with patients, helping her sterilize glass syringes, and watching as she carefully mixed prescriptions in her own pharmacy. In my own home, my mother, Doris, was a biology teacher, and my father, Francis T. Oliver, MD, was a dedicated anesthesiologist with a perspective, also having earned a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.


As a varsity swimmer and member of the university ballet dance company, I earned a B.S. in pre-med/biology at the University of Wyoming in 1979. I focused on a vision to develop a proactive program to keep people healthy so they avoided medical treatment if possible. It seemed prevention was a better choice, and I decided against medical school as my pathway.


Professionally, I progressed to the role of pools manager and then to director of parks and recreation, where I was able to design, promote, and teach activities in the community. However, I longed to be part of a more direct link between the scientific evidence of activity and its relationship to the health of individuals. I was most inspired by the people who were unable to exercise comfortably and effectively on land. This led to my question: How could we blend the science of health with the art of exercising while using the properties of water as a trainer?


I taught many classes, some for free, in order to develop a water-specific system that blended exercise science with buoyancy and resistance to create a water program that targets health outcomes. Without complicated choreography, simple, basic moves are varied through a system described by the acronym S.W.E.A.T. The system engages water’s properties and guides changes that affect exercise objective, intensity, lower-body impact, muscle balance, core stabilization challenges, and movement complexity. After years of teaching in the community and at fitness conferences, I needed to put the methods to the test. I wanted to teach the program to the world so more could experience the benefits our participants reported locally.


What is the most misunderstood belief about water fitness?

That water exercise is land movement performed in water. That land-based skills, choreography, speeds work well in water for health outcomes. That water is different than land – and what that means. It is a skill-based exercise (like swimming) and has a different skills set than land. For example, to stabilize a move in water you need to coordinate arms and legs properly. On land it’s not as important to the quality of the movement. Also, you’ll need equipment to progress exercises so people can continue to make gains. Just like a weight room, we need options for overload and support (buoyancy belts) to assist or resist activities for health improvements using progression.


Also, you cannot work on the same beat in water. Resistance increases with speed – some will over train, some will under train, and some will be targeting their appropriate intensity. Choreographed exercises that push people to the same beat miss the chance for effective training. It’s just silly.


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