Beyond the Lap Lane

Get more people in the pool with fresh aquatic programming for adults

By Stacy St. Clair

OK, let's stop for a moment to inventory your aquatic facility.

Zero-depth entry? Check.

Lazy river? Check.

Splash-play elements such as waterfalls, cannons and soakers? Check. Check. Check.

Diverse programming options that engage patrons of all ages? Anyone?

That's what we thought. Herein lies one of the biggest issues facing aquatic centers today. While the industry has developed a must-have list when it comes to amenities, programs are often overlooked.

Ignoring programming needs can be detrimental to even the best-designed facilities. No matter how many bells and whistles a center has, its finances will suffer without classes, events and other offerings to pull patrons in and keep them coming back.

Most facilities already offer ample programming for children with myriad learn-to-swim classes and competitive teams. It's the adult customers who don't have enough reasons to dip their toes in the water.

"Where is most of the programming today?" asked Melon Dash, president of the Transpersonal Swimming Institute. "It's all for kids. There's a huge market for adults that isn't being used."

Adult classes not only increase patronage, they also help the bottom line—especially for warmer-climate and indoor pools—because they encourage daytime use. In the end, the ability to fully program a pool during operating hours can spell the difference between turning a profit and merely scraping by.

Still not sure how to program your facility? We help you take this critical plunge by looking at programs that have succeeded in pools across the nation. They work because they recognize the various needs and skill levels of their adult patrons. With a little creativity and extra effort, your aquatic center can make the same splash with your post-adolescent customers in no time.

"There are so many advantages of aquatic classes," said June Lindle Chewning of the Aquatic Exercise Association. "It encourages diverse participation as well as diverse programming."

Into the water

In terms of aquatic programming, there's one simple rule: If it can be done on land, it can be done in the water.

Tai chi, Spinning, jogging, even weightlifting. They all have been adapted for the pool.

"Just as land classes are diversifying, so are aquatics classes," Chewning explained. "Water follows the land trends. It's more than just water-walking. It's water kickboxing as well, which is a really good modality."

Ideally, facilities will have two pools in which to conduct classes. One should be a warm-water pool for therapeutic programming, and the other can be used for high-level fitness classes.

However, aquatic centers without these amenities should not despair. There are still plenty of options. First take a look around at your land classes and see what's being offered there. Are the weight training and Pilates classes filled? Experts suggest looking for ways to convert them into an aquatic option.

Several facilities have begun offering Aqua-Tri programs, which includes swimming, water jogging and riding a water bike. The classes attract hard-core triathletes looking to do some resistance training, as well as curious patrons looking to test the triathlon waters, so to speak.

Pool managers also can glean great ideas from the Aquatic Exercise Association. The organization has a wealth of information on classes and choreography. Some of its most inspired suggestions include abdominal workouts and "Combat Aqua," which combines kickboxing and water aerobics.

The AEA has information on how to conduct water-noodle-based and children's classes. It also can provide detailed instruction on how to provide special classes for breast cancer survivors, fibromyalgia sufferers and arthritic patrons.

Experts also advise checking with aquatic vendors for class suggestions. Many have created programs to complement their latest products and could offer invaluable thoughts on how to liven up programming.

"Exercise equipment for use specifically in the pool is being manufactured now," Chewning said. "The possibilities are endless."

It's also important to think of programming in terms of appealing to niche groups, Chewning suggested. Pregnant women, for example, are faithful participants in aquatic classes because of the health benefits and stress relief provided.

In addition to the universal advantages such as cardiovascular fitness and energy boosts, expectant mothers have other reasons to take to the pool. For example, breast growth and abdominal stretching change a woman's center of gravity during pregnancy. This means an increase in back pain and sciatica, pressure on the long nerve passing down the back of the leg.

Pregnancy also can cause laxity and mobility in joints, which increases the chances of injury to knees, hips and ankles. The zero-impact nature of water significantly reduces the chances of a mom-to-be injuring herself during class.

Aquatic exercise also helps battle water retention by burning calories and through the pressure exerted by the pool's water against the skin. Even better, it's a viable fitness option throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy.

"It's great for pregnant women," Chewning said. "It relieves back pain, reduces water retention and doesn't place any stress on the joints. It's just a fabulous option."

In addition to catering to pregnant women, today's hottest trends delve into the mind-body genre. Water yoga, Pilates, tai chi and stretching all have become popular exercise options because the pool adds to the relaxing experience that draws people to the land classes.

"It's the biggest trend in the industry today," Chewning said. "It's great because there's a lot less stress on the joints."

Personal aquatic training also has become more popular, but Chewning stresses that not all land instructors are automatically qualified to teach in the water. In fact, the AEA requires six months of practical teaching experience before sitting for an examination.

Instructors planning to work with special populations or in specialized formats must complete additional training. All AEA-certified teachers must maintain CPR training, water safety and first-aid training.

"There are a lot of jobs coming open for physical therapists who have experience in the water," Chewning said. "But it's important to remember that not just anyone is qualified to teach in the water. You need to have trained professionals."

Luring Patrons / Marketing Techniques

So, you've taken the initiative to boost aquatic programming. That's the first step.

Now you have to find a way to attract patrons. While the classes themselves will lure participants, pool managers also must make the effort to promote the benefits. Here are some talking points to help market aquatic offerings:

Target baby boomers. As people get older, their hips and knees become more fragile. Trumpet your aquatic classes as the ideal fitness option for aging—but still active—bodies.

Dispel myths. Fitness die-hards often scoff at aquatic exercise because they don't believe it provides enough of a workout. Kill those misconceptions with educational materials showing the benefits of resistance training in water. Be sure to point out that aquatic programs provide a viable cross-training option.

Promote time management. Most patrons struggle to find time to fit in both their cardio and strength training workouts. Aquatic classes offer the best of both worlds.

Court special populations. One of the greatest benefits of aquatic exercise is that it provides fitness opportunities to people who otherwise might not have them. Make an effort to inform seniors, pregnant women and arthritic patrons about your programs. Reach out to local fibromyalgia and chronic-fatigue support groups to share information about your class schedule.

Tap the landlocked. For every person who takes a traditional yoga class, there's a patron who's too scared to try. Promote your water yoga and Pilates classes as a mind-body option for people who don't have the flexibility or courage to try the moves on land.

Conquering fear

Not all adult patrons are ready to jump into the water. A jaw-dropping number of Americans are terrified of swimming.

According to a recent Gallup survey, 39 percent of adults—78 million people—said they are afraid to put their heads under water. Forty-six percent, or 92 million, claimed to be scared of deep water.

The study also found that 62 percent

(a whopping 128 million people) feared deep, open water. This means that more than six out of every 10 people have a swimming aversion that the aquatic industry could be addressing.

But here's the heartening news: Of those 128 million people with water phobias, 41 percent say they'd like to overcome their fears. This means there are 52 million Americans waiting for assistance.

These numbers should serve as an inspiration to the aquatic industry. With an estimated 5,000 instructors in the United States today, that means each has a pool of roughly 10,400 potential patrons they could be teaching.

"If we want to grow the swimming industry—and I think we do—then we have to go after the biggest market and win them over," Dash said. "The biggest market right now is those who are afraid."

Tapping adults who are too scared to swim should have a positive impact on other programs, as well. Dash said parents who are frightened by the water often keep their children out of learn-to-swim classes.

Teach aquaphobes to love the water, Dash explained, and they will be more likely to enroll their children in aquatic programs. Ignore the problem, and the kids most likely will inherit their parents' reservations.

Dash, who has taught more than 3,000 adults to overcome their aquatic fears, has witnessed this phenomenon with her own eyes. She estimates that 90 percent of her students had at least one parent who was afraid of water.

"A lot of parents know their kids need swimming lessons," she said. "But a lot don't send them because they're afraid of the water and don't want anything bad to happen. We need to tap into that market."

To address the issue, Dash founded a swimming school in 1983 specifically for adults who were afraid to swim. Her aim isn't to teach them to master freestyle and backstroke by the course's end. Her initial concerns have nothing to do with whether they can tread water for long periods of time.

"The first step is to redefine swimming," she said. "I'll say, 'We know you might not be able to master freestyle. That's not the first step for you.'"

Oftentimes, the first step is just making the patron feel comfortable in the water. Only when that occurs can additional progress and other lessons take place, Dash said.

If a student doesn't like to let go of the pool wall, for example, Dash doesn't force him or her to try it right away. To the contrary, she encourages students to hang onto the side who want to. She tells them to feel the water, to think about how it feels and concentrate on how it moves against their bodies. It gives novices a chance to experience the water instead of allowing their reservations to consume them.

This philosophy contradicts old-school beliefs that a person only needs to learn how to swim or tread water to overcome aquaphobia. Her teaching experiences have proven that adults cannot learn to swim until they conquer their fears.

"Here's the big problem when people are afraid: They cannot learn because they are not in control," Dash said. "They don't know if they're going to lose it or not. If they don't know, how are they going to concentrate on their breath? If they're worried about other things, then how can you get them to concentrate on the task at hand?"

Dash likens overcoming water phobias to mastering in-line skating or biking. Most people don't feel safe in those activities until they learn to stop panicking and enjoy themselves. Water sports are no different, she explained.

In her classes, Dash skips the swimming mechanics entirely. Instead, she teaches people how to be at ease in water. Teachers show them how to "happily" put their face in the water and to float on their front and back. Students also learn to turn in the water, to jump into the deep end and let the water hold them up regardless of the depth.

"Most importantly, we teach people how to keep their presence of mind," Dash said. "We teach them how to maintain control and regain their confidence in water."

Students move at their own pace and don't compete with one another. Classes typically meet eight times for three hours each, with one hour on land and two in a warm pool.

Dash suggests aquatic facilities advertise the classes with honest but reassuring messages. Potential patrons need to know that the course will cater to their specific needs.

She recommends posting a sign that reads something like this: There's a class in warm water on this day at this time, and you can sign up for it here. It's 3 hours long. It's free. It will feel too short. We guarantee it will change your mind about the water. Will you be there?

"A lot of people say yes," she said. "A lot of people come up with amazing excuses. If they say no, we tell them, 'Here's a book or a DVD [on conquering your water phobias]. Go home and practice on your couch if you have to.'"

In the end, people who conquer their aquatic fears will become excited patrons, Dash said. They're likely to register for additional lessons, participate in water aerobics and bring their child to the pool, among other things.

"This will bring out the droves," she said. "It will get people swimming who've never been swimming before. We're giving them something they can use for their entire lives."

Water relaxation

In addition to helping patrons overcome their fear of water, aquatic facilities can go a long way to easing the pain of people who suffer from fibromyalgia or other chronic conditions.

Fibromyalgia is a widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue disorder whose cause is still unknown. Though patients often complain of aching all over, the most common pain sites are the neck, back, shoulders, pelvic girdle and hands. In addition to pain, symptoms include fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, irritable bowels and bladder problems.

Experts estimate that roughly 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. population suffers from the chronic condition. It affects women more often than men, but it knows no gender or racial boundaries.

For many fibromyalgia patients, water exercise may be the only treatment they receive. There is so much mystery and misunderstanding surrounding the condition that patients often are left to manage the pain on their own through nutrition, alternative medicine and exercise.

Until there is a cure for fibromyalgia, the most important step for improving symptoms is lifestyle adaptation. Exercise is critical, but often too painful to attempt.

This is where aquatic facilities can play a key role. Water offers a viable fitness option in addition to providing pain relief. In water, 90 percent of a person's body weight is relieved and the swimmer becomes buoyant. The buoyancy supports the body and allows the bather to make larger movements. It also eliminates the weight-bearing impact felt on land.

Water therapies have proven so effective, forward-thinking aquatic centers have tailored classes for other ailments besides fibromyalgia. There are now programs tailored for people suffering from arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome and other afflictions.

Aqua yoga instructor Cynthia Bialek knows first-hand the benefits of water exercise. More than a decade ago, she was an avid exerciser and land-class fitness instructor. Step classes, yoga, personalized training—she did it all.

"I was overdoing it for sure," she said.

Bialek maintained her busy schedule until she was felled by deep pain and exhaustion. Her symptoms would later be diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, but giving a name to the problems did not relieve her burden.

The Virginia woman was a fitness expert—she believed in the power of exercise and its health benefits. Her condition left her unable to work out. Merely getting herself to the bathroom would leave her exhausted.

Someone suggested she try water jogging, which would be easier on her joints. Before her diagnosis, it would have been an easy workout. But, with her illnesses, the class required too much effort.

"It put me back in bed for three days," Bialek said.

The struggle lasted for three years until one day when Bialek returned to the pool and began doing some of the yoga poses she taught in land classes. It felt good, both physically and emotionally, to move her muscles again.

She needed to get back in touch with her body, without bouncing, loud music or splashing. She liked that the poses allowed her to hear her own breath and be conscious of every movement.

"It was so calming to me," she said. "I challenged myself to do some more advanced moves. My joints opened and my muscles stretched just enough to make it feel good."

She decided she needed to offer this same exercise opportunity to others. In addition to helping sufferers of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, she knew the class would attract people who were overweight, arthritic or just too scared to try land yoga.

The water made it safer—and less painful—for hesitant patrons to try something new. Bialek knew the sense of peace the poses gave her, and she wanted to share it with others.

"It was enlightening to me," she said. "I knew this is what I was supposed to do with people."

Bialek has become so passionate about the benefits of aquatic exercise, she launched Yoga Afloat in 1993. The business, which offers seminars and videos, also certifies instructors across North America.

Bialek has certified more than 80 instructors in Canada and the United States. When she speaks with aquatic facilities looking to add water yoga, she tells them land yoga instructors aren't always the best people to handle the pool-based classes.

Aqua instructors face an entirely different set of obstacles and objectives. A water aerobics teacher often is more likely to understand the resistance created by water and how different patrons respond to it.

"Having previous yoga experience is great," Bialek said. "But if you're a yoga enthusiast or are a true yogi, you may not like it. There are a lot more challenges because you have that extra property of water movement."

Many movements easily translate to the water, especially the standing poses, or asanas, like the tree, dancer and eagle. Bialek adapted the traditional sun and moon salute, as well as modified some moves so they can be achieved by floating or using the pool wall.

Bialek ends classes with a savasana, a pose intended to ward off fatigue and bring mental repose. She has students lie on their backs with a noodle behind their necks and under their thighs. She encourages them to concentrate on their breathing and release any tension as they enjoy the final moments of class.

"It's very relaxing," she said. "It's a very peaceful way to end."

Bialek encourages facilities to hold these classes in heated pools in order to keep muscles warm and participants comfortable. She never lets the water temperature drop below 83 degrees.

She also likes to set a limit of 20 patrons per class. Any higher, she said, and it's difficult to provide personalized instruction. High participation also means there will be more water movement, making it harder for some to perform the moves.

"You want to make (your patrons) as comfortable as possible," Bialek said.

The classes primarily attract two groups: the arthritic and the overweight. The classes also lure die-hard yogis who are looking for a metaphysical experience.

"It attracts the yoga enthusiasts who are looking to enjoy the mind-body experience," she said. "The classes appeal to all types."

Bialek acknowledges that water yoga isn't the fitness industry's most strenuous workout. It doesn't burn fat or boost cardio levels like other aerobic programs do. Its success rests in its ability to get otherwise exercise-averse groups moving.

"A little exercise goes a long way for people who aren't getting any physical activity," she said. "They can feel their energy levels increase when they're in the water. That's an exhilarating feeling."

Repair, Renovate or Replace?

There comes a time in every aquatic facility's life when the tough question must be asked: Should it be repaired, renovated or replaced?

By addressing this pressing concern, aquatic managers open themselves up to more programming options and increased patronage. Finding the correct answer for your facility isn't always easy.

The process is difficult. It requires honesty, introspection and, occasionally, courage from pool operators.

But those willing to deal with the tough questions may actually prolong their facilities' lives.

"Many companies, organizations, park districts, et cetera, are facing the issue," said Scot Hunsaker, president of the renowned aquatic design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker. "You need to identify what your definition of success is. For most organizations, that would be revenue."

When it comes to existing pools, minor facelifts can sometimes delay the aging process. You don't have to break the bank, but with a little creativity this work can go a long way toward giving your facility a new look.

First, consider adding play products that can be retrofitted to older pools. These features draw water directly from the pools, so they do not require pricey water distribution systems or additional infrastructure. Popular options include, but are by no means limited to, ground sprays, water cannons, activation bollards and soakers.

More and more pools are opting for these play features because of the flexibility they allow. The features can be changed as often as the facility's budget and creativity allow.

Aquatic operators also don't have to go into debt to finance the makeover. They can simply buy the products their budget permits and add on as revenue becomes available.

And, if other communities are any indication, the new features will open additional revenue streams and programming options. The elements make facilities more attractive to group visits and party rentals.

Some older facilities, however, cannot be saved. Though it's a difficult decision, Hunsaker said that wise aquatic managers know when to stop throwing money down the drain.

"At some point it does not make sense to keep putting money into a 30-year-old pool year after year," he said. "You have to decide when it is ultimately more cost-effective to just start anew."

To weigh a facility's effectiveness, aquatic managers must sit down and crunch the numbers. How much would all the repairs costs? How much would it cost to build from scratch?

As a general rule of thumb, Hunsaker said that if pool repair costs make up 60 percent or more of the total amount needed to build a new pool, it's probably better to go new.

"You need to come up with a business plan today," he said. "Find out exactly what it takes to get there—and if it's ultimately worth it."

Once a community has decided to build new, the first thing it must consider is the facility's location. Ask yourself this question: If you had the choice, would you build in the current location again?

If the answer is no, then you should consider relocating to an area that would be more profitable and conducive to new programming. For example, a pool that was in the center of town 30 years ago might not be today. A city's south side might not have been developed three decades ago, but it now could be the city's main hub.

"Your existing pool might be in what used to be a desirable part of town," Hunsaker said. "Cities change, demographics change, a community's needs change. All of these things need to be looked at."

Wherever you decide your new facility should go, it's important to get the local power-brokers on board. This often can be difficult because officials might have antiquated ideas about aquatic programming and diversions.

It's important to show them how dynamic, all-ages programming can impact revenue streams and patronage.

"You might run into the attitude that the pool in question was good enough for me when I was a child, so it's good enough for kids today," Hunsaker said. "That's just not true today. Kids today are totally different and have different needs and expectations."

Hiring the right architect and aquatic consultant is a key move. They'll play a critical role in designing a facility that should last at least 50 years.

They'll also help come up with ways to make a big splash on a shallow budget. Hunsaker has lectured to aquatic managers all over the country and their desire to pursue a cost-effective project is generally paramount.

"Many of the people in my sessions are like people in most communities," Hunsaker said. "They are expected to do more with less."

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