UMaine hockey players test underwater treadmill in study

Posted June 04, 2012, at 3:21 p.m.
Last modified June 04, 2012, at 4:49 p.m.

Treadmills have a proven track record in helping injured athletes get back into competitive shape, while running and walking in water provides low-impact rehabilitation for people with injuries to the lower extremities.

University of Maine graduate and undergraduate students in an exercise science class have studied the two approaches in combination, establishing in recent research that an underwater treadmill can provide effective low-impact rehabilitation and cardiovascular conditioning.

Graduate students Philip Watson and Travis Bouchard and undergraduate Cassandra Mendonca, who received degrees in May 2012, along with professor Robert Lehnhard performed a series of metabolic tests on a dozen male athletes from the UMaine hockey team. The students compared the athletes’ performance on a traditional treadmill versus the underwater treadmill. They collected data about oxygen consumption, lactic acid buildup, heart rate and calories consumed with each exercise method.

“What was interesting was that, even for the manufacturer, there was no metabolic data quantifying how much exertion is involved with this piece of equipment,” Lehnhard said. “If you go to the gym or the rec center and get on a stationary bike, or if you get on an elliptical machine and put in your body weight, they’ll tell you how hard you’ve worked. With this new underwater treadmill, those types of data don’t exist. Nobody had ever determined the difference in metabolic impact from two miles per hour to three miles per hour. That’s an important part of rehabilitation.”

Among the concerns when rehabilitating an athlete with a joint injury is getting back to full strength without losing cardiovascular conditioning in the process, Lehnhard said. Lower limb injuries are a particular challenge.

“This piece of equipment fits nicely when impact is a concern,” Lehnhard said. “The general public could benefit, perhaps more so, since they are less fit. I think it fits well with rehab, but I don’t think it’s a tool you would use for [intense] conditioning.”

Lehnhard believes the underwater treadmill, in a pool with adjustable water jets and current, could benefit nonathletes. Many people, particularly those just beginning an exercise program, are not conditioned for repeated impact on their joints.

A paper on the research, “The metabolic response to treadmill graded exercise: traditional vs. underwater,” co-authored by Watson, Mendonca, Lehnhard and collaborating professors of education Shihfen Tu and Steve Butterfield, along with Kenneth McKeever of the Rutgers Equine Science Center, was recently published by the journal Comparative Exercise Physiology.

Contributed by the University of Maine.