Before You Go - October 2013
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Fun & Fitness in the Water
Waterparks Offer Physical Fitness for Youth

By Deborah L. Vence


Waterparks offer more than just a day of fun in the sun. They present an opportunity for youth to get physically fit, too.

This, according to a recent study, "Indoor Waterpark: An Examination of Physical Activity Levels and Use Patterns of Youth Participants," co-authored by William D. Ramos, assistant professor in the Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies Department in the School of Public Health at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., and director of Indiana University's Aquatics Institute; and Craig M. Ross, a professor in the Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies Department in the School of Public Health at IU.

"It's a hot topic … childhood obesity. [We were] interested in looking at nontraditional angles [in helping to fight obesity]. Gyms and physical education centers are incredibly attractive facilities, [but] tying in fun … you almost accidentally become physically active," Ramos said.

The study showed that physical activity in the waterpark has the capability to produce moderate and vigorous levels of physical activity, overall, and to generate a variety of differences among individuals and activity areas at the facility.

Ramos used an observational method, called the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC), to see how waterparks affected physical activity. For the purposes of this study, patterns and levels of physical activity of youth participants were examined at an indoor waterpark in rural southern Indiana. He said the study speaks more to a waterpark's potential, the certain aspects of the built environment. What characteristics did it have for prompting physical activity?

The SOPARC method that was used to guide data collection for the study to determine youth physical activity postures was coded as sedentary, walking or vigorous. Participants were comprised of youths, ages 4 to 8, who attended the park during the data collection, which was done between March and May of 2012. The results touched upon seven main target areas that represented data for age groupings, gender and physical activity postures. The frequencies were then calculated for variables involving counts and moderate vigorous physical activity (MVPA). A series of one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed using total metabolic equivalents (MBTs). Physical activity in the waterpark was shown to have the capability to produce moderate and vigorous levels of physical activity overall and also to generate a variety of differences among individuals and activity areas at the facility.

"Using the sampling technique, you have to go back multiple times during the day, and note the differences during the day. [Are they active on the slide into the morning more than in the evening?] We observed [youths] four times a day, in the late afternoon and evening and then we went back four different times. You break down the area and break it down into target areas. For example, you take a lazy river and it winds and twists, breaking it down into observation areas. We ended up with 30 different areas," Ramos noted of the observation process.

For example, part of the study's results showed that the lazy river had the most evenly distributed age groups and the highest level of physical activity.

"The kids were most active in the lazy river," Ramos said, adding that kids didn't just float on top of the inner tubes along the river. Some kids stood up in the center of the tube to race down the river.

The way in which you put a park together can encourage or discourage physical fitness, which opens the door to possibly influence the way in which waterparks are designed, Ramos said.

The overall conclusion from this study was that about 75 percent or 85 percent was spent in the moderate or vigorous physical activity for kids 18 years old and under. Younger kids were more active.

"It shows that there is potential for design to influence how active people are at the waterpark," Ramos said.

Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), noted that the study is really important right now.

"Bill is really engaged at IU relative to aquatic research. When I saw this study, [I thought] this is terrific stuff. Why? Yesterday's recreation is today's medication. Obesity rates are going up, so physical activity becomes more important," Lachocki said.

"People don't think of waterparks as public health facilities. They are seeing it as a place to have fun, and that's the way the industry's been built. When I see Bill's study, I see quantification of different adolescents relative to aerobic exercise," he added. "Vigorous intensity, this directly aligns to the federal guidelines for children and adolescents to get exercise. Kids need 60 minutes per day of aerobic activity. This study shows that when people go to waterparks, they are getting their aerobic activity."