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WATER WALKING THE LATEST IN AQUA AEROBICS

WATER WALKING THE LATEST IN AQUA AEROBICS

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Their torsos strapped into buoyant sandwiches, half a dozen women are bobbing like seahorses across the deep end of the pool at the YWCA here. Breathing hard, legs and arms churning, they are literally neck deep in the aerobic sport for the '90s - water walking.

There is Helen Nedweden, who has had knee problems. And Barbara Luchansky, who has had neck and back trouble. And Teresa Chase, with her injured ankle. (But all feeling fine working through the warm water.)And there is Barbara Morand, associate aquatics director, motoring her upright self forward and urging them all on amid the blare of taped marching band music: ``Anchors Aweigh,' ``When The Saints Go Marching In,' etc.

``Try not to lean forward too much. You're still in the vertical position,' Morand says. She tells a visitor: ``The whole thing is - no swimming allowed.'

You are witnessing the devolution of aerobic man and woman.

Here is how it goes: About 400 million years ago: Creatures haul themselves up onto dry land. Some five million years ago: Human forebears stand upright. Two hundred years ago: The Shakers invent Jazzercise, sort of.

The 1970s and 1980s: Joggers pound pavement; millions ``go for the burn.' Listen! You can hear lower limbs cracking like cold Turkish taffy, ligaments snapping loose from their bony moorings like guitar strings breaking.

Boom. Men and women dip back into the soothing water. But they do not have to swim. They can walk and even run, going for a whole-body, super-low- or no-impact workout.

Locally, Morand has taken water walking from a delusion of biblical grandeur to a popular exercise. In the past year, she has led hundreds of Y-class participants on semi-submerged strolls - in deep and shallow water.

These days, everyone from elite athletes looking for an edge to the elderly seeking a chlorinated fountain of youth are ambulating in swimming pools. And there is at least one guy in Connecticut who runs across his neighborhood lake.

Water-aerobics classes have been hopping and twisting in the shallow end for years now. Like water walking, they use water's resistance (about 12 times that of air) to build strength, while its buoyancy (neck deep in water, you weigh about 90 percent less) reduces injuries and increases flexibility.

But water walking is relatively new, with its focus on vigorous wading at one end of the pool and - aided by any of several brands of body-hugging flotation equipment - its willingness to go off into the deep end.

Deep-water walking or running is not to be confused with treading water, Morand explains. The legs do not bicycle, they stride. The feet roll from heel to toe as if one were treading on terra firma. And one typically moves forward, albeit with a lumbering liquefied locomotion.

Arm movements range from a jogger's two-fisted chugging to a far-swinging cross-country-skiing motion that can quickly wear out even the fittest landlubber.

Indeed, the fitness payoff to all this safely submersed slogging is so great that a newcomer like Luchansky, 40, of New Britain, can barely contain her exuberance.

``You have adrenaline-plus after you do this,' she says. ``I come home and I'm ready to tear apart the house and put it back together again.'

``I felt the muscles stretched in places I thought were totally impossible,' she says. After three weeks of pool pacing, Luchansky says she has knocked a half-inch off her hip measurement.

It was Shirley Shea, 34, of New Britain who coaxed her into the pool. A hard-core lap swimmer for 20 years - ``I swam a mile the day I had my son ... They all worried I was going to have the baby in the pool' - Shea's chucked her old routine in favor of water walking.

``Deep-water running for me is more vigorous ... You use more muscles,' moving upright than swimming, she says.

In fact, Shea pushes herself through an hour-plus of hard hydro-hiking in pursuit of a natural, water-runner's high.

``I have to keep dunking my face in the water because it's burning up. The rest of your body doesn't feel it, because it's constantly being cooled,' by the pool, she says.

Tough as her wet workout is, Shea finds that with her head above water she can still talk, making friends with fellow converts who swam laps alongside her for years in adjacent aqueous isolation.

It is just that heads-up sociability that is moving water walking into the fast lane, says John Spannuth, a Florida-based Johnny Appleseed of aquatic activities who bills himself as the ``founder of water walking.'

In earlier incarnations, Spannuth was president of the American Swimming Coaches Association and founder of internationally recognized masters (35 and older) swimming competitions that draw 30,000 registered competitors in the United States alone.

Now, he insists, ``Lap swimming is old-fashioned.'

Spannuth says he stumbled on water walking in 1986 at the pool of the Norman, Okla., YMCA, where he was working. An elderly fellow was trodding the shallow end, getting exercise despite arthritis that limited his land-walking.

By the time he left Norman two years later, Spannuth says the Y there had 2,500 regular water walkers. Now he crisscrosses the country pitching water walking to aquatic directors as a ``magic magnet' for increased pool use.

Only a fraction of the public can swim laps, he says. Many more are afraid to put their faces in the water. In water walking, they will not have to.

As part of his promotional effort, Spannuth has organized the National Water Walking Championships, which are being held for the third time this year.

Spannuth concedes that at first such competition - in which people race 50 yards, upright, down pool lanes - was laughed about. But now the field of entrants is growing so big that qualifying state championships are being considered. (Can wee hours ESPN broadcasts be far behind?)

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