Supplement Feature - February 2018
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Swimming Toward Wellness

Expand Aquatic Programming With a Focus on Fitness

By Dave Ramont

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."