Guest Column - October 2012
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Step Into Swim: Getting Everyone Into the Pool, Part 2

By The National Swimming Pool Foundation

Editor's Note: In this second part of our exploration of the Step Into Swim Campaign, we consider drowning statistics and all the benefits of getting more patrons into the pool for a swim.

Drowning has a substantial personal, societal and financial impact. Although drowning rates have decreased over the past 15 years, drowning remains the second leading cause of unintentional injury and death in children ages 1 to 19 years, accounting for about 1,100 child deaths per year. Drowning rates are shockingly high among African-American adults, of whom about 62 percent are unable to swim. African-American children between 5 and 19 years old are six times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their peers. Formal swimming lessons are associated with an 88 percent reduction in risk of drowning in 1- to 4-year old children. Clearly, swimming competence would also prevent drowning in older age groups.

It is impossible to quantify the sociological impact that drowning has had over generations. Lifetime medical costs for unintentional drowning deaths in 2005 in the United States totaled almost $13 million. Lifetime medical costs for non-fatal drowning in 2005 reached more than $82 million. If indirect costs such as lifetime productivity losses are included, the fatal and nonfatal costs to society top $4.6 billion and $0.6 billion, respectively. This totals more than $5.3 billion in direct and indirect costs from fatal and nonfatal drowning that occurs in a single year. If this number is consistent each year, the financial impact of drowning is about $100 billion for the past 20 years.

Drowning also has a substantial negative economic impact on companies that build, service, operate and supply products in this field, due to liability cost. An informal opinion from a legal expert estimates that a typical drowning lawsuit costs about $200,000 to defend or settle. Also, the negative perceptions influence consumers to spend discretionary dollars in other areas that may not result in physical activity. Learning to swim remains a key defense against drowning, in addition to preventing negative sociological and financial consequences.

Opportunities to Have More Swimmers

Fear, drowning, disease, injuries, and social and cultural forces are substantial influences to discourage aquatic activity. It is also difficult to change people's habits. However, the NSPF believes that getting more people swimming is vital to national health as a way to prevent ongoing harm from drowning and to create economic prosperity among organizations that help encourage a healthier population.

Strong forces support the potential for more people to become swimmers:

  • Civilization formed and prospered beside water.
  • Instinct, curiosity or fun draw children and adults to water.
  • Parents hope that children will survive despite their fears.
  • The growing body of evidence is that swimming prolongs life and provides unique health benefits.
  • Government and industry will invest heavily to encourage and incentivize physical activity to control healthcare costs and societal suffering.

Society's needs, the benefits of aquatic activity and the inability of millions to swim have compelled the NSPF to invest time, effort and money to help more people become swimmers. Becoming capable and confident in the water opens the door to healthier bodies and can reverse the catastrophic societal health and financial consequences of inactivity and aging.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association partners with five other organizations to ascertain popularity of various activities. In 2011, they measured the activity that seven age groups ranging from 6 to 65-plus years of age hope or wish to do (aspirational activity). "Swimming for fitness" was in the top three aspirational activities for every age group. In fact, "swimming for fitness" was the leading aspirational activity for the 6-to-12 and the 65-plus age groups. This finding reinforces commonly accepted beliefs surrounding the popularity of aquatic activities and swimming in particular. A different published survey of African-Americans indicated a strong desire to swim more and intent to visit a pool weekly despite no/low swim ability.

Health Benefits of Aquatics

Studies that compare mortality rates between swimmers and other common physical activities are rare. The most compelling published findings compared 40,517 men (20 to 90 years of age) who completed health examinations from 1971 to 2003 as part of the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study administered by the Cooper Institute. After adjustments for age, body mass index, smoking status, alcohol intake and family history of cardiovascular disease, swimmers had a 50 percent and 49 percent lower all-cause mortality risk than did men who were walkers or runners.

Hydrostatic pressure from immersion in water forces more blood to the central organs, increasing cardiac stroke volume and cardiac output, which is similar to the effect caused by exercise. Cardiac stretch is a key measure of heart exercise and health. Thus, immersion causes heart exercise (stretch) that decreases with age and increases with water temperature and depth.

Water activity and immersion is also ideal for many other ailments. Water is an ideal environment for individuals who suffer from diseases like arthritis, diabetes, dementia or multiple sclerosis, and from physical injuries. Water activity is the right solution for the aging and growing population who are less prone to exercise. With minimal risk of injury, they achieve improved heart, kidney and respiratory functions, greater relaxation, flexibility and many other benefits. Unfortunately, aquatic activity is unlikely if an individual does not feel comfortable in the water and cannot swim.