Over the past few years, aquatic cycling has become a trending fitness activity. However, the literature has not been reviewed exhaustively. Therefore, using scoping review methodology, the aim of this review was to explore the current state of the literature concerning aquatic cycling. This study specifically focused on study designs, populations and outcomes. A comprehensive search of seven databases (PubMed, MEDLINE, Cinahl, Embase, PEDro,Web of Science, WorldCat) was conducted up to 30th September 2016. GoogleScholar, World Cat, ResearchGate, specific aquatic therapy websites and aquatic therapy journals were searched to identify additional literature. Full-text publications in English, German or Dutch were included. Studies were included when the intervention involved head-out cycling carried out in 10° to 35° Celsius water. Exclusion criteria were the use of wet suits or confounding interventions that would affect participants’ homeostasis. 63 articles were included and the study parameters of these studies were summarized. Using three grouping themes, included studies were categorised as 1) single session tests comparing aquatic versus land cycling, or 2) aquatic cycling only sessions investigating different exercise conditions and 3) aquatic cycling intervention programmes. Although the experimental conditions differed noticeably across the studies, shared characteristics were identified. Cardiovascular parameters were investigated by many of the studies with the results suggesting that the cardiac demand of aquatic cycling seems similar to land-based cycling. Only six studies evaluated the effect of aquatic cycling interventions. Therefore, future research should investigate the effects of aquatic cycling interventions, preferably in individuals that are expected to gain health benefits from aquatic cycling. Moreover, this comprehensive outline of available literature could serve as a starting point for systematic reviews or clinical studies on the effects of aquatic cycling on the cardiovascular responses.
Citation: Rewald S, Mesters I, Lenssen AF, Bansi J, Lambeck J, de Bie RA, et al. (2017) Aquatic cycling—What do we know? A scoping review on head-out aquatic cycling. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177704. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177704
Editor: Tiago M. Barbosa, Nanyang Technological University, SINGAPORE
Received: December 16, 2016; Accepted: May 2, 2017; Published: May 16, 2017
Copyright: © 2017 Rewald et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Data Availability: All relevant data are within the paper and its Supporting Information files.
Funding: This work was supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Grant number 022.003.036 (http://www.nwo.nl). The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Water-based fitness equipment has gained popularity within aquatic fitness leading to a development of dryland training machines, such as stationary exercise bikes and treadmills, into water-proof exercise gear. Although aquatic cycling has become a trending fitness activity, the modification of standard ergometer bicycles for aquatic programs is nothing new and stems from the late sixties. Researchers used water immersion as an effective simulation of prolonged weightlessness, moreover, the utilization of the aquatic environment has been recognized as useful in rehabilitation [1, 2]. Similar to land-based cycling, the repetitive circular movement of pedalling against the water resistance ensures a use of a large range of motion (ROM) of the lower limbs to improve cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength. The fact that individuals are sitting on the aquatic bike can be beneficial for those who have problems with balance and independent gait. However, in contrast, while the sitting position and hydrostatic pressure assist with postural control, the loss of free movement i.e. reduced challenges to balance, and the few variation of the exercises may limit its effect on functional capacity. A shared characteristic with other types of aquatic exercise is the decrease of joint loading due to the buoyancy of the water. During aquatic cycling participants are immersed in water up to the chest and the buoyancy of the water unloads the joints of the lower extremities and the lower spine, a condition appealing for patients experiencing pain or problems with physical functioning during exercising on land [3, 4]. Despite the potential benefits of aquatic cycling and its long history, the application of aquatic cycling in an exercise and clinical context still appears to be low. Limitations that might prevent clinicians using aquatic cycling for therapeutic purposes could include the investment costs, storage space requirements, and the elaborate set-up of the aquatic bikes. In particular, getting the bikes in and out of the pool, without an adjustable floor, is demanding.
The scientific evidence on the potential benefits of aquatic cycling seems to be scarce as well. Obvious search terms like aqua(tic) cycling, aqua(tic) bike or water cycling yield very few relevant results from scientific search engines. Moreover, the small number of references about aquatic cycling, used in previously published reviews on aquatic exercise, further emphasizes the impression of a scarcity of literature [5–7]. These reviews summarize the effects on head-out aquatic exercise, including aquatic cycling, or compared physiological responses of different types of aquatic exercise and swimming with each other [5–7]. Further, the aquatic cycling interventions were not described in detail in these prior reviews with these reviews only including cross-over studies.
Thus, the questions remain how has aquatic cycling been investigated in previous research, and whether a search effort solely on “aquatic cycling” would reveal additional publications and research investigating the effects of aquatic cycling intervention programmes. A systematic review with a meta-analysis would not suit this aim and therefore a scoping review study design was chosen. Systematic reviews are guided by specific research questions leading to strict in- and exclusion criteria. The primary aim for performing a scoping review is to map the available literature that meet a comprehensive research question combined without restricting inclusion criteria . Where systematic reviews evolve out of an initial understanding of the research field, scoping reviews are employed to identify research and explore their features such as target populations, interventions, study designs and outcomes [8, 9]. As a result scoping reviews help to develop an understanding of the extent and possible gaps and uncertainties in the existing literature. Furthermore, a scoping review might identify a sufficient amount of studies that would facilitate a systematic review .
Therefore, the main objective of this study was to identify the scope of available research with regard to aquatic cycling as an exercise activity. Specifically, this scoping review aimed to explore the aquatic cycling exercises, study designs, comparison of training effects (if applicable), populations and outcomes utilised in research investigating aquatic cycling. To enable a comprehensive coverage of available literature the following research question was formulated: What is the available research on head-out aquatic cycling exercise?
Framework of a scoping review
The procedure of performing a scoping review follows similar steps as those used in systematic review approaches without limiting for study design of included studies and without a quantitative synthesis. The framework of Arksey and O’Malley for scoping reviews was implemented in this study . The framework consists of five essential stages and one additional stage; 1) identifying the research question, 2) identifying relevant studies, 3) study selection, 4) charting the data, 5) collating, summarizing and reporting the results, and additionally 6) consultation of experts (optional). All stages can be performed in an iterative manner allowing refining of search parameters.
Identifying relevant studies
A comprehensive literature search was conducted in August 2015 and updated to 30th September 2016 in seven electronic academic databases (PubMed, MEDLINE, Cinahl, Embase, PEDro, Web of Science, WorldCat). The search strategy was documented by title of the database searched, date of the search, the complete search string that was used and the number of articles found (Table 1). The development of each search string was an iterative process and familiarisation with the literature revealed additional search terms for aquatic cycling such as “immersed cycling” or “underwater pedalling”. These terms were combined with more general terms for aquatic therapy (e.g. hydrotherapy) the search included the following key terms: ergometer, immersion, hydrotherapy, aqua(tic), cycling, underwater (bi)cycle ergometer, immersed ergocycle.
Additionally, ResearchGate, GoogleScholar and relevant aquatic therapy websites (http://www.wcpt.org/apti, http://www.atri.org, https://www.aeawave.com) were examined. Moreover, the table of contents of the accessible key journals ‘International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education’ and ‘Journal of Aquatic Physical Therapy’ of the American Physical Therapy Association were checked for additional literature. Finally, reference lists of all included articles were hand-searched for new articles and the authors of this paper, all experts in the field of aquatic therapy and aquatic fitness, checked their own libraries for additional literature. The table of contents and reference lists were screened for the key words related to cycling and (immersion) exercise (testing) on land and in water. Throughout the search process it was noticed that no consistent terminology exists with regard to aquatic cycling. To ensure that the search terms used were correct and complete, the terminology used in included articles was re-evaluated. This post-hoc analysis (S1 File) addressing the terminology used to describe aquatic cycling confirmed our choice of search terms.
The inclusion and exclusion criteria were developed in two stages. In phase one, the authors agreed to include all formats of full-text reports that focused on the effects of head-out aquatic cycling exercise on the human body (Table 2, stage one). After familiarisation with the literature the selection criteria were further specified (Table 2, stage two). In each step of the selection procedure two or more reviewers were involved and inclusion discrepancies were solved by discussion. Screening of titles and abstracts was performed by two reviewers (BW and SR) with the online programme “Covidence” (Covidence systematic review software, Veritas Health Innovation, Melbourne, Australia, available at: www.covidence.org). Next, all authors were involved with the full-text screening and all results were independently imported into a Microsoft Excel file and compared after completion of the review process. Information on the two-stage development of the inclusion criteria is available in a supporting file (S2 File).
Charting the data
Descriptive data were extracted into Microsoft Excel tables including name of the first author, year of publication, primary research question, sample size, age, gender, health status of participants, exercise parameters, main results reported in the abstract, water temperatures, aquatic bike used and level of body immersion. Information on effects of resting immersion was not discussed for this review, but might have been part of the experimental set-up of the included studies. The tables were organised by the body position on the aquatic bike (upright and semi-recumbent), because physiological responses might vary with immersion level related to the body position on the ergometer . All tables include information on interventions with healthy participants and patients. If patients were involved, information on the disease characteristics is reported in the tables. Articles that originated from the same data set, but focusing on different outcomes, were summarized and represented as one study in the tables, but references from all studies are included to aid identification of the separate articles.
The search revealed 465 potential studies. After screening of the titles and abstracts, 350 studies were excluded and the full-text versions of 115 publications were read (Fig 1). Finally, 63 articles met the inclusion criteria. The reasons for exclusion during the full-text screening and the references of these excluded articles are presented in a supporting file (S3 File). Nevertheless, some of these publications might contain useful information and were therefore used as supportive literature. All included articles were published in peer-reviewed journals. Three of the included articles were published in German with an English abstract [10–12].
*One publication was allocated in two categories.
The included articles were categorized in three groups according to the intervention characteristics. The first group consisted of comparisons using the aquatic bike as a tool for evaluating land versus aquatic cycling. The second group consisted of studies on the physiological responses to single sessions of aquatic cycling under different exercise conditions (e.g. different water temperatures). Research on the effects of multiple aquatic cycling sessions was clustered in a third group. According to these three grouping themes the extracted data was organised in three tables (Table 2, Table 3 and Table 4).
Land-based cycling compared to aquatic cycling
Thirty-one studies compared aquatic cycling with land cycling (Table 3). Half of the studies (n = 15) used a maximal incremental exercise test to investigate the physiological responses during immersion versus on land exercise testing [11, 13–26]. Submaximal incremental exercise tests were conducted in six studies [27–32]. Increments were mostly achieved by an increase in pedalling frequency. Seven studies of the aforementioned studies controlled exercise intensity by electronically regulated pedalling resistance [10, 21, 24–27, 31]. An additional six studies compared submaximal continuous aquatic cycling with land cycling [33–38]. Three other studies evaluated aquatic cycling as a mean for active recovery after an extensive exercise bout on land [39–41]. Furthermore, one study compared the effect of moderate intense dryland cycling with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on land and in water . Two-third of the aquatic cycling sessions (n = 22) were conducted in an upright body position. Nine studies [11, 24–26, 30, 31, 34–36] compared semi-recumbent cycling on land and in water. Four semi-recumbent bikes also had arm pedals [11, 24, 30, 36]. The level of body immersion of the participants varied from chest level to chin level. The water temperature during the exercise sessions ranged from 18°C to 35°C.
All but three studies used a cross-over design to compare both environments. Additional study designs were a randomized controlled trial [41, 42] and a quasi-experimental study . In 19 out of 31 studies participants were young, healthy males. Five studies included healthy participants of both sexes [13–16, 26, 36] and three studies included pregnant women [27, 37, 38]. In four other studies participants were middle-aged men , males with cardiovascular diseases [28, 32] and men and women with hypertension .
Studies (n = 21) investigating the difference in cardiovascular responses between aquatic versus land cycling compared oxygen consumption (VO2), heart rate (HR), stroke volume, cardiac output and blood pressure [15–23, 26–33, 37, 38, 42]. In total eight studies investigated the maximum VO2 response during land and aquatic cycling, with all but one study  reporting equivalent VO2max values achieved by the participants on land and in water [17–23, 26]. Maximal HR was found to be lower during aquatic cycling at intensities higher than approximately 80% of the VO2max in seven from ten studies [20–23, 26, 29, 30]. The remaining three studies reported similar maximal HR for the land and water conditions [16–18]. In men, following recovery from a myocardial infarction, no difference in submaximal HR on land and in water was found . McMurray et al. reported a trend toward a lower HR at submaximal intensities in water in men with coronary heart disease . In pregnant women moderate aquatic cycling resulted in lower maternal and foetal HR compared to land-based cycling . Four studies reported higher stroke volume and cardiac output in the aquatic cycling group consiting of healthy participants [15, 21, 29, 30]. Systolic blood pressure was similar in healthy males during an incremental exercise test when using aquatic versus land-based cycling [18, 21]. In pregnant women and in men with coronary artery disease the systolic blood pressure was reported to be lower during submaximal aquatic cycling [27, 32, 37, 38]. Sosner et al. reported a similar post-exercise reduction in blood pressure in patients with hypertension after a high-intensity cycling session on land and in water .
Other key outcomes were ventilation parameters [23, 31, 33], lipid mobilisation and oxidation [18, 34], sympathoadrenal response [18, 20, 34], lactate accumulation and removal [17, 18, 20, 39, 40]. and thermoregulatory responses [35–37]. Further outcomes were the development of prediction equations to estimate oxygen consumption from pedalling rate during aquatic cycling [13, 14] and to calculate external power output of aquatic cycling . Fenzl et al. compared the gas exchange measurements with the heart rate variability to estimate the ventilator threshold on an arm-leg aquatic bike .
Aquatic cycling under different exercise conditions
Twenty-five studies investigated the effect of several different exercise conditions during aquatic cycling (Table 4). The comparisons are based on cross-over studies with healthy young males with the exception that healthy (non-pregnant) females were included in three studies [43–45] and one study used a quasi-experimental design to compare age-matched healthy controls with heart disease patients . Common core outcomes were cardiovascular [12, 23, 44, 45, 47–50], metabolic [36, 51–55] and thermal response [43, 49, 50, 52, 56–61] to different exercise conditions. Furthermore, approaches to estimate and regulate exercise intensity during aquatic cycling were evaluated [62–64].
Different exercise conditions were created mostly by changes in water temperature [12, 23, 43, 48–52, 57, 60, 61] and different exercise intensities (high versus low) [23, 43, 44, 50, 58–61, 63–65]. With regard to the exercise parameters intensity and duration, studies (n = 11) utilised continuous, submaximal exercise (40 and 60% of VO2max) with a duration of 30 to 60 minutes [12, 23, 43, 49, 51, 52, 57, 60, 61]. Exercise intensities were either based on graded exercise testing on land [12, 23, 44, 45, 47, 50, 51, 53–56, 58] or in water [23, 43, 46, 48, 52, 57, 62–64]. The water temperatures that were compared ranged from cold (18–20°C) and cool (25°C) to thermoneutral (30–35°C). Other studies compared different levels of body immersion , different types of exercise (interval versus continuous cycling, arm versus arm-leg versus leg exercise) [45, 49, 61] and different aquatic bikes with each other . Furthermore, the maternal and foetal response to submaximal (60% of VO2max) aquatic cycling during different stages of pregnancy was studied [47, 53–56].
Fifteen studies used upright aquatic bikes [23, 44–47, 51–57, 62–64]. In all these studies pedalling frequency regulated exercise intensity while two studies focused on the influence of pedalling resistance provided by additional fins to the flywheel [44, 64]. Sogabe et al. used the additional fins to increase pedalling resistance in semi-recumbent cycling . In all other semi-recumbent bikes intensity was set with electronically controlled pedalling resistance mechanisms [43, 48–50, 58–61].
Aquatic cycling intervention programmes
In total eight intervention studies, investigating the effects of a multiple sessions aquatic cycling exercise programme, were found [66–73]. The exercise programmes (Table 5) lasted between three and 36 weeks with an exercise frequency between two and five times per week. The duration of one session varied between 30 and 90 minutes. Exercise intensities were based on land-based maximal graded exercise-tests and the training intensities were set between 60 and 80% of the VO2max in all but one study . In a one-group test-retest study, Sheldahl et al. assessed weight loss in obese women after a low intense (30 to 40% of VO2max) aquatic cycling programme . Boidin et al. also evaluated the effects of aquatic cycling on cardiometabolic parameters in obese people . In this retrospective study the participants underwent an extensive lifestyle programme including high-intensity aquatic cycling or land cycling. Furthermore, two randomised studies evaluated the cardiovascular effect of aquatic cycling compared to land cycling in young healthy males  and patients with multiple sclerosis [72, 73]. Two quasi-experimental studies investigated the influence of water temperature on heat tolerance and aerobic capacity [67, 69, 70].
Four studies reported a significant improvement of cardiorespiratory parameters compared to baseline in healthy (obese) people and multiple sclerosis patients [68, 71–73]. Aquatic and land cycling evoked similar improvements in cardiorespiratory parameters. Further, moderate land and aquatic cycling achieved similar improvements in health-related quality of life and self-reported physical fatigue in patients with multiple sclerosis [72, 73]. Boidin et al. reported comparable results in weight loss and reduction in fasting glycaemia and triglyceride levels in obese people . In obese women, an eight week aquatic cycling programme in cold water did not lead to weight loss .
In young, healthy males, there was no superior effect of cold or warm water on the improvements in cardiovascular parameters [67, 69, 70], lactate accumulation lactate accumulation , dryland heat tolerance  and muscle glycogen utilization 
This is the first review to scope the available literature on head-out aquatic cycling exercise. The aim of this review was to describe the study parameters of available research utilising aquatic cycling as an exercise modality. Sixty-three publications were identified and the review provides a full summary of the set-up of aquatic interventions and possible comparisons, core outcomes, involved participants and the study designs utilised in current literature. The exploration of the intervention parameters revealed great variety on the use and execution of aquatic cycling.
Land-based cycling versus aquatic cycling
The main body of the current research on aquatic cycling focuses on cardiovascular outcomes and the core findings for the comparison between land-based and water-based cycling showed similar trends. These latter studies [17–23, 26] reported comparable VO2max values of aquatic and land-based cycling and therefore, the cardiac demand of aquatic cycling seems similar to land-based cycling. The results for HR were less consistent with a tendency for a lower HR during aquatic cycling compared to land-based cycling [20–23, 26, 29, 30]. Further, cardiac output and stroke volume was reported to be higher during aquatic cycling [15, 21, 29, 30]. These results are in line with the general understanding concerning the effects of water immersion on the human body. Hydrostatic pressure exerts external pressure on the immersed body, which increases with increased depth [2, 74]. Due to the hydrostatic pressure exerted there is a shift of blood from the extremities to the chest cavity, increasing arterial filling, and thus cardiac output and stroke volume are increased [2, 74]. Because cardiovascular parameters are modified by immersion, this could explain why the literature is inconclusive on the optimal recommendations for exercise prescription during aquatic cycling. Another explanation maybe as most aquatic bikes are not equipped with an electronically controlled pedalling resistance mechanism and approaches to estimate VO2 from aquatic cycling are often based on pedalling frequency, with or without additional resistance. However, these equations cannot be used for all aquatic bikes, as the design and drag resistance created by pedals and resistance fins vary considerably across the aquatic bikes.
Aquatic cycling under different conditions
Due to the heterogeneous nature of aquatic cycling, many variables are involved when studying its impact on individuals, for example device-specific factors [44, 63–65] or environmental parameters as water temperature [12, 23, 43, 48, 49, 51, 52, 56–61]. Thus explaining why the cardiovascular response to different exercise conditions was frequently investigated. For example, it seems that VO2max is comparable across different water temperatures and that participants perceived exercising in warm water as more exhaustive [23, 48, 49]. Further, included studies concluded that exercise intensities up to maximal limits are achieved by an increase in pedalling frequency and that VO2peak does not differ between the different types of aquatic bikes [44, 64]. However, high-pedal frequencies are difficult to maintain during longer exercise sessions with a continuous character [44, 64]. To avoid discomfort with maintaining high pedal frequencies, exercise intensity can be modified by an increase in pedalling resistance or by utilising an interval training . The latter was perceived less exhaustive than a continuous protocol .
Aquatic cycling as an intervention
Only six studies investigated the effect of multiple aquatic cycling sessions [66–73]. In four studies aquatic cycling was used in a clinical context for patients with multiple sclerosis and as exercise training for older adults and obese individuals. Research showed that aquatic cycling was equally effective than land-based cycling for improving cardiovascular fitness [66, 68, 71–73]. Furthermore, none of the included studies reported adverse events related to the training, suggesting that aquatic cycling is a safe exercise modality.
Most of the exercise protocols of the aquatic cycling intervention programmes consisted of steady cycling in a seated position with moderate intensity. Only Boidin et al. used an interval protocol for the training of obese individuals . It seems that the full potential of aquatic cycling including out-of-saddle positions and arm and trunk exercises is not published yet in peer-reviewed journals . Addition of these elements might prevent monotony especially in multiple session programmes  and results from supportive literature suggest that a full spectrum aquatic cycling programme is effective in patients with musculoskeletal disorders .
This scoping review has identified a number of areas for further research. Most of the included studies have a cross-over design with few cycling sessions and investigated the exercise response in young healthy males, because gender, body mass and morphology are known to affect the response to aquatic cycling [59, 77, 78]. Further, only six studies investigated the effect of an aquatic cycling intervention programme. To improve the use of aquatic cycling in healthcare, future studies, preferably RCTs, should investigate the effects of aquatic cycling interventions in different populations and on outcomes such as (joint) pain, muscle strength or physical functioning, which are yet to be investigated. Of specific interest may also be the biomechanics of aquatic cycling and differences of seated and out-of saddle cycling. Furthermore, the identified literature seems suitable for more systematic reviews. For example it seems worthy to synthesize the available evidence on cardiovascular responses to aquatic cycling.
To further improve the understanding of acute and long-term physiological adaptions to aquatic cycling training and facilitate between study comparisons, consistent reporting of the following parameters is recommended. Studies should describe the type of aquatic bike, body position, level of immersion, water temperature, methods used to control and assess exercise intensity i.e. training frequency, duration, rpm and pedalling resistance. Furthermore, it should be stated whether or not adverse events occurred. In addition to an accurate description of the aquatic cycling intervention, an agreement of experts on uniform keywords to describe the exercise activity is also strongly advised since this would improve the search in scientific databases. In this review the terms “aquatic cycling” and “aquatic bike” were used, as these expressions nowadays are commonly associated with this type of exercise.
This review has strengths and weaknesses. The extensive search procedure in this review resulted in more than sixty publications on aquatic cycling only, which were summarized and displayed. However, the presented studies should be interpreted with caution, because no quality assessment of the internal validity of the included studies was made in order to cover a broad spectrum of literature. Furthermore, this review provides a very general overview of the research on aquatic cycling without focusing on certain details of the included studies. For example, only the main outcomes reported in the abstract of the included studies were reported in this review. Yet, this comprehensive outline of available literature in this scoping review could serve as a starting point for systematic reviews or clinical studies on the effects of aquatic cycling on the cardiovascular responses.
This is the first scoping review to summarise the literature on head-out aquatic cycling. There are numerous variables related to aquatic cycling e.g., the type of aquatic bike or environmental factors e.g., water temperature or immersion level. As a result, the objectives of the identified studies in this review are heterogeneous. Most of the included studies compared aquatic cycling with land-based cycling or examined how to quantify and modify exercise intensity. Very few studies evaluated the effect of aquatic cycling interventions. Cardiovascular parameters were investigated by many of the studies and the results suggest that the cardiac demand of aquatic cycling seems similar to land-based cycling. Therefore, further research should synthesize the effects of aquatic cycling on cardiovascular parameters in a systematic review. Future studies should evaluate the effects of aquatic cycling interventions in a clinical and rehabilitative context.
S2 File. Development of the inclusion and exclusion criteria.
- Conceptualization: SR IM AFL JB JL RAdB BW.
- Data curation: SR AFL BW.
- Formal analysis: SR IM AFL JB JL RAdB BW.
- Investigation: SR IM AFL JB JL RAdB BW.
- Methodology: SR IM AFL JB JL RAdB BW.
- Project administration: SR BW.
- Supervision: BW IM RAdB.
- Visualization: SR IM AFL JB JL RAdB BW.
- Writing – original draft: SR.
- Writing – review & editing: SR IM AFL JB JL RAdB BW.
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