Swimming Toward Wellness

Expand Aquatic Programming With a Focus on Fitness


It's no secret that lots of swimming pools have fallen victim to the budget knife recently, with more closings being announced each year. Pools are easy targets, since they often lose money and many of them are only open for part of the year. And while some aquatics managers have looked at adding more waterpark-type amenities to boost attendance, or have gotten more creative with their programming, there are those who feel that many facilities are overlooking another potential group of users: those who would benefit from water and wellness programming.

Nicole Scherbarth owns a Detroit-area company that provides recreational, aquatics and wellness therapy for children and adults, from special needs to athletes, and those who have suffered catastrophic injuries. She works with clients one-on-one as well as in groups, using space at local pools, but thinks that there's a lot more opportunity for aquatics managers to serve new populations.

She pointed out that baby boomers are becoming seniors, and mentioned those who may have accessibility issues or barriers. She also feels there's an opportunity for transitional programming, to connect those who were receiving physical therapy or outpatient therapy into the community. "They're not looking at the fact that those providers can bring in a population," she said. "There's a whole bunch of people they could potentially bring in as new community members."

Scherbarth has approached facilities where she sees rehab clients about starting classes, but said they sometimes see her as competition. "I explain to them that it's not a competition, and I'm actually integrating a population that you don't serve, and these children bring in their families as well."

She added that in her area, there are a lot of charter schools being developed, and there's also a robust homeschool program, but there are no aquatics programs created for them. "They're missing all these children that don't fit into traditional school models," she said.


The Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) is a nonprofit organization committed to the advancement of aquatic fitness, health and wellness worldwide. Their members include group fitness instructors, personal trainers, athletic trainers, therapists, facility directors and exercise enthusiasts. They offer training courses, continuing education and the AEA Aquatic Fitness Professional Certification.

Julie See, director of education at AEA, feels that pools that aren't booked to capacity should open their venue to outside activities and programs as an ideal way to bring in additional income and work within the community to provide more health and wellness opportunities. "Many therapy centers don't have pools, and many pools have hours where there is no income-producing activity scheduled," she said. "Residents in the community can benefit from aquatic therapy. This is a win-win opportunity."

Pools should also consider offering aquatic personal training, according to See, whether from trainers on staff or by renting pool space to outside trainers. She said that personal and small group training requires only a small area of the pool, allowing it to be offered at the same time as another activity. "This is again an option for new revenue, plus it shows the community that the facility is community-minded," she said.

More aquatics venues are adding various water exercise and fitness offerings into their curricula. Additionally, there are many different techniques when it comes to aquatic therapy, defined as "the use of water and specifically designed activity by qualified personnel to aid in the restoration, extension, maintenance and quality of function." Some of these techniques include Ai Chi, Bad Ragaz Ring Method, Aquatic Sensory Integration, Aquatic Trunk Stabilization and Watsu. Many health issues can be addressed with water therapy, including neurological issues, respiratory and circulation problems, cardiac diseases, joint replacement, osteoporosis and arthritis, prenatal care, sensory disorders, orthopedic injuries, depression and pain. Medicare, Medicaid and many private insurers may pay for aquatic therapy if a physical, occupational or speech therapist provides the service.

Darin Barr, senior associate at Ballard King & Associates, a recreation consulting firm, has extensive experience in aquatic center management. He said that in the recreation industry, there is a continual focus on exercise and wellness, which continues to move into aquatics. "Specific to aquatics, you're seeing a migration of all the different varieties of group exercise classes—Zumba, Pilates, yoga, spinning—moving into the water and/or near the water," he said. "You are also seeing stand-up paddleboarding, log-rolling and other non-traditional uses come into the pool environment."


The impact on attendance depends on the structure of operations, according to Barr. Some programs are integrated into membership fees, so you might see an increase in daily usage but, not necessarily daily drop-in revenue, he explained. In contrast, other programs are pay-per-session or pay-per-class, which also might not have a huge impact in daily admissions or attendance. "But the theory is to make infrequent users occasional users, and occasional users frequent users. An increase in programming and exposure to programming can do that," Barr added.

The Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute (ATRI) is a nonprofit organization created to further the education of healthcare professionals working in the aquatic environment. Ruth Sova, founder and president of ATRI, wears many hats within the aquatics health and wellness industry. When it comes to informing the public about water wellness programs, she believes that if you build it, they will come. "Health is vital to all, and the water can provide it," she said. "People can work on their own, or they can work with a therapist; either way, the patient benefits and the facility benefits. As soon as others see what's going on, they'll want the same service. As soon as the doctors see the outcomes, they'll send more patients."

Sova pointed out that many pools already have vertical aquatic fitness courses. Plus, they can set aside a lane or a corner of the pool for one-on-one work. "This can fill pools during their downtime and promote the pool in the community," she said. "If they put out the word in the community that they'd like to rent a part of the pool, they'll find takers."

Sue Nelson, aquatic programming specialist for USA Swimming, agrees that aquatic centers are starting to recognize how important vertical aquatics are to their bottom line. "Aquatic fitness and wellness programs can be 55 percent of the income for aquatic centers if developed properly for the communities."

Nelson said that facilities need to understand how to market to their communities' health and fitness needs, starting with having qualified professionals offering great customer service. "The industry needs to look at pools like they are an aquatic health club or gym. You can offer a client everything they need to reach their fitness goals via the water just like the land health club," Nelson said, adding that developing partnerships is a win for all since therapists are focused on providing the best care for their clients, not operating an aquatic center. "Aquatic centers focus on providing a safe environment in and out of the water while aquatic therapy and aquatic exercise can be offered by the professionals."


The city of Largo, Fla., has two outdoor aquatic facilities, and Mark Abdo is the aquatics supervisor and community outreach liaison there. He described some of the fitness and wellness programs they offer, including Aqua Fit and Trim, Deep Water Exercise, Aqua Zumba, a home-school PE program and Silver Splash, which is a Silver Sneaker water exercise program. Patrons also partake in fitness swimming and water walking with no specific class. He said their annual Aquatic Zumba Pool Party attracts 100 to 150 enthusiasts for a two hour dance/exercise event.

Abdo said that attendance is fluid in Largo's aquatic exercise classes, especially in the winter. And while men do participate, he said that senior women make up the majority, adding that attendance is stronger when a particular instructor has a good following. As far as marketing, a variety of channels are utilized, including fliers, posters, a newsletter for their business membership, websites, media releases, Facebook, marquees, cross promotions with land fitness classes, social media of students and instructors, and sending digital information to other area aquatic facilities.

According to Abdo, the city also works with water therapist Dawn Lewellyn, who rents pool space twice a week for private aquatic therapy sessions. "This is a mixture of children and adults with various disabilities," he said. "Dawn's private therapeutic swim classes are always full to capacity on Fridays, so in summer 2017 we added Wednesday mornings as well. We also hired her as a contract coach for our summer Special Olympic swim team." Lewellyn previously worked for the City of Clearwater Recreation Department as their CTRS (Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist), but as funds dried up she started her own business.

When it comes to arrangements between private therapists and pools, Barr said they vary, and may be as simple as paying admission to the facility if they're just using pool time. "If the instructor or therapist wants exclusive use of specific spaces and/or equipment, then there may be a pre-determined fee structure," Abdo said, adding that the same might go for hospitals or therapy groups renting space at specific times.


Sova agrees, and said that rents in these situations can vary tremendously. "Some pools rent at $5 for a lane for an hour! The warmer the water and the more private the pool, the more you can charge."

Some aquatics facilities may choose to assist current staff with receiving training or certification when it comes to water fitness instruction or water therapy, while others seek to hire or contract those who are already certified. "As you look to build your instructor roster, don't overlook current swim lesson instructors," Barr said. "It sounds silly, but building the instructor base is a bigger challenge than a participant following."

Another avenue Barr suggested is to work with an organizer to be a host-location for training sessions. See said it's about a 50-50 split when it comes to instructors, with some facilities providing education/certification opportunities for employees and other venues requiring certification prior to being hired.

Abdo said Largo has had some trouble hiring water exercise instructors who are already certified, so the city allowed him to create his own certification program, just for use at their facilities. "The Largo certification is a mixture of classroom and actual instruction with a USWFA (U.S. Water Fitness Association) instructor signing off, allowing the individual to be hired by me as a contractor." This is only for general water exercise, Abdo explained. Other therapeutic certifications are the responsibility of the instructor, and he added that they have recruited other staffers by hosting national certification training programs.

What about physical requirements as far as the venue is concerned; are there equipment or design issues that facilities should be aware of when looking to offer wellness programs? Barr pointed out that water temperature and water depth will affect what a venue can offer, and there are water-entry considerations as well. "Incorporation of zero-depth entry, stairs, lifts, etc., is important to make the environment as inviting as possible."

Barr added that locker rooms and changing rooms are important considerations, too, as is the general pool environment. For instance, if the pool is incorporated into a larger, multipurpose facility, there may be lots of windows and views of the pool. "Some people that may participate in an exercise/wellness program may have body image issues, so getting them into the water in a way they feel comfortable will be important. These factors should be considered when determining what programs you will offer and who will participate," he said.

When it comes to water temperature, there is a vast amount of information out there, and a venue's team needs to do its homework depending on the offerings under consideration. Generally speaking, if your water is warm, 92 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit, your programs should be passive. If your water is moderate, 86 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, then your programs can be more active.


To provide therapy to her special-needs clients, Scherbarth said she requires either a water wheelchair or a pool lift. And she pointed out that facilities need to make sure the equipment is up-to-date, and should retrofit any gear that is not compliant with accessibility guidelines. This might include making sure there are seatbelts and that leg wraps are removable. Also, are there any barriers that would keep a wheelchair from getting to the lift safely, such as a lip covering the pool filter? "All of these things can pose a liability risk to the facility," Scherbarth said.

Indeed, Abdo related how Largo once had a relationship with an apartment complex to offer their water exercise classes, since the complex had two heated pools, but the agreement was cancelled due to accessibility issues and new ADA guidelines.

As far as general equipment goes, See said there is a multitude of things available to fit every budget and every program format. "From traditional webbed gloves, kickboards, foam hand bars and noodles to high-tech underwater treadmills and bicycles; to innovative strength equipment that uses drag resistance to mimic land-based strength training, to aquatic boxing bags, trampolines and stand-up paddleboards for the pool."

These days, some pools are being designed with water wellness programming in mind. Abdo explained that he is in the process of pricing out his ideal outdoor heated therapy pool, because the multipurpose pool is not ideal for all water exercise classes due to limitations caused by depth, design, water temperature and when programs can be offered. "If renovating or building new," Abdo said, "the aquatic professional needs to be involved for design purposes."

See agreed, adding that facilities designing new pools should consider not only traditional swimming offerings, but vertical exercise formats as well. "It's imperative to take extra effort in water depths, bottom slopes, surfaces, etc."

Sue and Mick Nelson, through USA Swimming, oversee regional conferences advising on how to build pools wisely for a wide range of programming to make them profitable.


Abdo said that to stay competitive, aquatics professionals need to program out of the box; know your competition and current trends, network and attend seminars and conferences. "Talk to instructors and participants, look at industry periodicals and NRPA Gold Medal agency aquatic websites, and budget accordingly."

See has observed that many facilities now are offering more diverse types of fitness and wellness programs, to meet the needs of existing clients and to increase membership. "Aquatic programming offers an option for cross-training between land and water, a low-impact and comfortable alternative for those healing from an injury or surgery, a safe and less intimidating choice for new exercises (there are no mirrors at the pool!), and a fun yet functional training method for all ability levels and ages."

Scherbarth said that aquatics directors need to be more open-minded, exploring more specialized programming and designing programs depending on the pool space that's available. She's noticed that in some community programs, they don't have a dedicated person with the skill set to work with special needs patrons, and if they do, they don't necessarily help them to integrate into the community class with the other students. "There are people like me who love to create programs and serve the community; all we need is a little bit of space. It could be a mutually beneficial setup, especially in my area where there are pools that keep closing."