Dive in for Healthier Bodies & Minds

Wellness Programming for Aquatic Facilities

By Julie Knudson

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists a number of health benefits related to swimming and other water-based activities, including improved joint function and reduced discomfort for arthritis sufferers, anxiety relief for fibromyalgia patients, and better bone health in post-menopausal women.

Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo., said that no matter your age, exercise and activity in the water is ideal, "because the risks of a lot of the bad things associated with exercise go down pretty dramatically." He cited reduced risks for joint stress, slip-and-fall accidents, twisted ankles and broken bones. Even people with limited physical mobility or stamina often benefit from aquatic activities.

"What's particularly good about water," Lachocki said, "is that the compression water has on the body causes cardiac and respiratory exercise, even if the person isn't moving."

Linda Quan, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and a physician in Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital, believes the health benefits of swimming and other aquatic activities extend beyond the physical realm. "I think we traditionally think of health benefits in terms of exercise," she said, "and certainly there's increased interest in exercise for cardiovascular health, diabetes control, weight control, obesity control and prevention, and all of that. But I think in addition to exercise, there's the health benefit of learning water safety."

Quan said aquatic activities play an important role in improving social health and well-being—everything from reducing drowning rates through the teaching of water safety to giving people a chance to be included in peer group activities and "integration into the local lifestyle," thereby minimizing social and physical isolation.

Unfortunately, aquatic facilities trying to market those messages of physical and emotional wellness may be hindered by one "fabulous strategic blunder," Lachocki said. He believes that people know to contact a doctor when facing concerns such as joint pain or a potential heart attack, but rarely do they link participation in aquatic activities to the prevention of those same health issues. "A paradigm of thought is that the pool's a recreational facility, but in reality the value that an aquatic facility provides to society is … more years of being able to care for yourself." The positioning of pools and aquatic centers as places of play—rather than places of health—leaves them highly vulnerable in today's struggling economy, he added. The message of health "has been misrepresented, and as a result we're less valuable."

Aquatic Programming Basics

Focused on offering residents a place to both relax and exercise, the Christiansburg Aquatic Center in Christiansburg, Va., opened just a year and a half ago and has already developed a range of robust programming around their leisure, warm water therapy and competition pools. "We have senior aerobics and we have specialty classes such as Ai Chi," said Allison Zuchowski, Christianburg's aquatic services manager.

In addition to providing fitness sessions for various age groups and ability levels, she said, "We also have some disabled groups that come in and utilize the warm water pool."

One area Zuchowski said the Christiansburg team is working to strengthen is programming for elementary school kids in the area. "We have offered to go into the schools and combine [swimming] along with physical education to meet the standards of learning, so we're doing the instructional swim program along with a water safety component."

Water safety is among Christianburg's priorities for children of all ages, especially as the kids regularly swim in local lakes and creeks, but connecting with older students and area teens continues to be a difficult prospect, said Terry Caldwell, AFO, the Center's director of aquatics. "Advertising to actually get the word out to them is a challenge, I think."

She added that the quality of any aquatic facility's programming originates from strong community involvement. Her team "realized very quickly that not only did we need to be a customer service facility, but we needed to listen to every single voice." She believes that individual feedback is paramount to identifying key needs within the community, and said, "Everyone has a voice here. Here at the Aquatic Center, that one person stands tall."

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) in Greenbelt, Md., oversees 11 aquatic facilities, all within Prince George's County. Tara Eggleston, countywide aquatics coordinator, said that developing a diverse set of programs, particularly those related to health and fitness, has helped generate and sustain community engagement. "Clients have different interests in participating in aquatics, so we offer general recreation play, water fitness programs, and we even offer water fitness programs to youth and teens."

Pointing to the problem of childhood obesity, she said, "[T]rying to offer targeted fitness programs for children and teens is something that has not grown significantly in our industry, but it's something managers should try."

Learn-to-swim programs and senior fitness classes are also on her priority list, along with offering clients access to competitive activities. "Whether you develop a youth swim team or you partner with swim teams that are using your facility, really try to offer something for everyone, because each individual and their interests are going be different."

One challenge facing the M-NCPPC—and many other aquatic centers—is the lack of disposable income among area residents. "Socioeconomics plays a big part … and trying to break down those social and economic barriers has been a big thing," said Annette LeHew, health and wellness coordinator for the M-NCPPC. To combat the lagging economy and help clients continue to reap the health and recreational benefits of the local aquatic facilities, LeHew said the M-NCPPC team has developed a campaign that offers free pool admission a few days a week during the summer, and also doubles as a marketing pitch for the youth-oriented aquatics program. For parents struggling to provide safe and healthy activities for their kids, the campaign provides "free access for children in our county, and taking away the costs helps provide access to those families."

Engaging Minorities

Drowning statistics for minorities are generally higher than those for whites, with fatal drownings among African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 coming in at triple the number for white children in the same age bracket. Reducing these tragedies is of primary importance, but getting minority groups more involved in aquatic activities—and getting them engaged in water safety courses—requires overcoming some fear of water issues along with addressing cultural, social and sometimes economic factors that stand in the way.

Quan has conducted research into water safety among several minority communities, and says each group will have its own set of needs and reasons for resistance. For instance, she found that Somali women had transportation challenges because they may be restricted from driving, while many in the Vietnamese community were only accustomed to seeing water as a component of work, not relaxation or exercise.

The demographics and challenges vary by region, but Quan believes aquatic centers can use some baseline introductory questions to begin a dialogue with the minority groups in their particular area. "Ask them, 'What's your community water experience?' And if they're immigrants, what was their experience in their original country? How did they engage in water sports or recreational water?"

She said she learned during her research that the answers to those questions may not be what you expect. "We found that you just can't assume you know."

Quan also encourages facility operators to reach out to local minorities "within their community groups, church groups, temple groups, as well as the leaders of those groups, and sit down and talk to them. Say, 'We would like to welcome you all and offer our facilities to your community.'"

The steps Quan's group has taken to further involve minorities in water activities in the Pacific Northwest include developing brochures in different languages about where free or low-cost swim sessions are available, and the bus route numbers to get to those sessions. "We identified the cost, we identified if it's indoor or outdoor, and we identified how you could get there," she said.

One group the M-NCPPC facilities are actively working to engage is the Muslim population, particularly women within that demographic. "A lot of it has to do with their culture and having to be covered completely," Eggleston said. "Or in some cases, they're not permitted to swim while men or boys are using the facility at the same time. So we found that it has been a challenge in terms of that group, engaging them and providing opportunities."

Because government agencies typically aren't able to support single-gender access, accommodating the needs of female Muslims has proven difficult. "We do allow the women and girls to swim completely covered, so we still are supportive of their culture and their lifestyle. We just require that they have a swimsuit under their garments," Eggleston explained.

The community supported by the M-NCPPC also includes a large African-American population, where Eggleston said fear of injury, drowning and a lack of water experience combine to put aquatics low on the list of preferred activities. "A lot of that is passed down from generations prior to now," she said. "And it had a lot to do with previous circumstances of segregation and lack of access to swimming activities for minority groups."

Eggleston believes that few role models in the aquatics industry, whether professionally or competitively, may also make minorities feel they don't have "someone they can relate to in the industry to encourage them to participate." The M-NCPPC puts significant energy into networking with the local minority populations, and Eggelston said that successfully engaging them in swimming or water fitness activities takes a concentrated and focused effort. "If they're not actively or regularly walking into your aquatic facilities, we do believe it's necessary to set up additional outreach efforts and tools to help capture these customers."

February is Black History Month, and Eggleston said it's a prime opportunity for aquatic facility operators to attend local community events and market the available aquatics programs and services. "It's also a great time of year to educate the community about prominent figures within the aquatics industry," she said, "whether it's professionally or competitively, to push the idea that aquatics activity is not just for fun and recreation, but this could really become a lifestyle choice for your health."

Targeting Seniors

Lauren Woodcock, program supervisor at Christiansburg, said accommodating the varying range of abilities among senior clients is important to keep them involved, and classes targeting individuals with arthritis or a limited range of motion take advantage of their facility's warm-water pool.

"The warm-water pool will help them move a little bit easier, and they stay warmer while they're exercising so they don't get cold," Woodcock said. "Then we have our other seniors who can do a little bit more, and they go with the leisure pool. They can still work on flexibility, and then they can work on strength a little bit in there as well." She said the classes contribute to seniors' fitness while minimizing joint stress.

The popularity and diversity of clients taking the senior-focused water fitness classes at M-NCPPC is a small taste of older Americans' drive to maintain their health as they age. "Our water fitness programs for seniors are heavily populated by minority participants, and that might just be reflective of how diverse our county is," Eggleston said.

She added that it's often difficult to engage adults in water activities, but said, "I think as you grow older your body starts to change, and your abilities begin to change." Sometimes it takes a doctor's recommendation to get people in the pool, but Eggleston believes it ultimately helps "break the fear barrier for a lot of seniors because they know that this type of activity is good for their bones and their cardiovascular health. And it's a lot easier for them to participate in than actually jumping around or moving too quickly in a land fitness class."

Centers interested in launching senior programs don't have to go it alone, Lachocki said. "If you're looking at doing therapy and rehabilitation, there's the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute. If you're interested in doing exercise, there's the Aquatic Exercise Association. Those organizations are there to support those types of programs." He stressed the importance of working with an aquatics instructor certified to work in the area you're implementing, rather than "just taking a person and saying 'Now go teach this water class.'"

Support for Fearful Swimmers

Estimates for the number of Americans afraid of being in or near water range from one in 10 to more than four in 10, but even at the low end of the scale that means about 31 million people suffer from some form of water phobia.

Jeff Krieger, M.S., founder and director of the S.O.A.P. (Strategies for Overcoming Aquatic Phobias) Program, based in Beacon, N.Y., said fearful swimmers may never have been exposed to water, while some have had traumatic experiences in or around water, and others have no idea why their fear of water is exaggerated.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, Krieger said fearful swimmers are "a diverse group that crosses all boundaries, and they're not usually going out and looking for a program like mine—they kind of have to bump into it."

Though fearful swimmers come in all ages, Krieger said few people between their late teens and early 50s seek out learn-to-swim programs, and he surmises those folks "are so busy with their careers, their lives and raising children, that the fear lays dormant or they can manipulate their lives to avoid water."

Krieger even finds it's not uncommon for people with water phobias to get their own kids into swim lessons. But as these individuals age, the issue sometimes returns to the forefront. "I'm finding more seniors, the 55 and over population, who have come to some sort of crossroads in their life," he said. "Whether they're changing careers, they're sick and tired of carrying that baggage around with them, or they're entering retirement and want to be able to enjoy vacations and aquatic activities, I'm seeing a lot more seniors looking for a program like mine."

One challenge to marketing fearful swimmer programs, Krieger has discovered, is that individuals with water phobias may have already tried traditional learn-to-swim programs without success. "It's so important…to first learn to overcome that fear, and then learn to swim," he said. "Most learn-to-swim programs don't deal with the emotional component, and as a result they aren't prepared to deal with consequences of either a child or adult who can't learn to swim because they're terrified." Krieger uses his background as a mental health professional to first tackle the fear before teaching swim strokes.

Aquatic centers interested in promoting programs for those with water phobias should first ensure they have the right resources and instructors on hand to successfully address swimmers' fears, Krieger said. "Pool space is always at a premium, and usually the odd man out is the phobic or the person who needs additional resources to be successful."

He stressed the need for instructors who recognize and can address the emotional component present in water phobia, and said that mental health professionals, people with a background in education, and those who have worked with emotionally or physically challenged populations are usually "the kind of passionate and compassionate people that are more successful in this type of process."

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