In many clubs, the pool is a somewhat forgotten area, used mainly as a respite for former competitive swimmers, the occasional children's swimming lesson or a water aerobics class attended mostly by senior citizens. Walk into Prairie Life Fitness in Omaha, NE, though, and you'll see much more than just quiet lap swimming and seniors splashing in the pool. In fact, with 25 group pool classes offered per week, along with aquatics personal training, swimming lessons and triathlon programming, you'll see a thriving three-pool aquatics area in which about 15 percent of the club's membership is involved in some way.

Much of that participation is because of the club's dedication to aquatics programming and an aquatics director who believes in the power of the pool.

“I am always giving my instructors material and articles I find that relate to their classes and encourage them to share it with their participants,” says Dayle Nervig, aquatics director at Prairie Life Fitness. “I am a firm believer in conscious or purposeful exercise for all participants. I tell them what they are doing and why, and any outcomes will be better.”

Through signage at the club, flyers, the website and newsletters, Nervig advertises the club's water fitness programs to both pool users and non-pool users by highlighting the health benefits of water workouts.

Lately, Nervig has had a lot of benefits to share. In fact, studies presented last October in Atlanta at the sixth annual World Aquatic Health Conference sponsored by the National Swimming Pool Foundation demonstrated that despite their low-impact nature, water workouts improve bone density, build muscular strength and provide health and cardiovascular benefits that are on par with running and are better than walking (for more details, see sidebar at end of the story).

In addition, the research showed that the water is gentle for members with musculoskeletal injuries, arthritis and other physical conditions that make frequent exercise on land difficult or painful.

Steven Blair, a researcher at the University of South Carolina, has studied the health benefits of swimming.

“This is crucial to the health of the nation, controlling health care expenditures and quality of life,” he says. “[Aquatics exercise] should be done in all populations.”

So why are only 8.6 million Americans swimming, and why are only 1.78 million of them considered frequent swimmers, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA)? By comparison, 20.1 million people participate in yoga, and 26.5 million use the elliptical, according to the SGMA.

The problem is that, even though the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association says that 32 percent of commercial clubs offer aquatics exercise, information about aquatics research and the benefits of aquatics isn't reaching the masses or the majority of the clubs, says Bruce Becker, research professor and director of the National Aquatic Sports Medicine Institute at Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

“[There is] a great big missed opportunity there,” he says. “The public is generally ignorant of the potential health benefits that seem to be unique to the aquatic environment, and health clubs don't seem to be dramatically interested in reaching out to these populations.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The Princeton Club in New Berlin, WI, is one facility that is using recent aquatics research to get its members and nonmembers into the pool. The club has a six-lane Olympic-style lap pool, a resistance-current training pool, a water park, a steam room, a sauna and a whirlpool in its aquatics area.

With a total membership of 6,500, the club enrolls an average of 300 people every eight weeks for swim lessons and 20 people a week for private swim lessons. It also does 10 hours a week of personal training in the pool, four hours a week of private coaching, four hours a week of rehabilitation services and offers 12 group fitness classes a week, with each class bringing in about 10 members per class. In addition, the facility hosts special trainings for scuba divers, triathletes and lifeguarding certifications.

The activity pool, lap pool and whirlpool are open to members almost all day, every day, says Nancy L.C. Arnold, the club's aquatic director.

The Princeton Club's programming reaches more than seniors with arthritis. It also reaches elite athletes, obese teens and physical therapy patients, she says.

Programming at the Princeton Club is based on the latest research. Employees involved in the pool area must be certified or have a degree in aquatics. Arnold promotes the health benefits of water-based workouts through e-mails to members and a bulletin board in the club.

To encourage more people to jump in the pool, nonmembers can take water fitness classes for about $20 a class. Nonmembers make up about 40 percent of all of the aquatics area's participants, she says.

Arnold's efforts and the club's focus on aquatics and research are paying off. In 2009, the aquatic center's net profit was $150,000.

“The general rule of thumb [for club operators] is to know your realistic goals — and don't lose sight of them,” Arnold says. “Hire and pay an experienced, qualified director who has the same vision as you have and is willing to work towards those goals.”

Maintaining a proper aquatics area can be expensive because of the costs associated with lifeguard salaries, liability insurance, water treatment and cleaning, but that is why club operators must make the most of the area, says Meg Stolt Johannessen, owner, sport-training specialist and private coach for MSJ Athletics and MSJ 4 Her in New York City.

Stolt Johannessen offers mostly private coaching for triathletes and post-rehab aquatic fitness, but she also teaches water fitness classes at two YMCAs in central New Jersey.

“It is important to find a balance that generates opportunity,” she says. “Sometimes, pool space is overscheduled with swim lessons or swim teams, and water fitness classes are overlooked. Sometimes, the emphasis is the children's programming, and adult programming is neglected. Getting to know your members and their wants and needs is the most efficient means of developing effective programming for the pool.”

Stolt Johannessen says research is imperative to her work in post-rehab and athletic performance. She regularly networks with physicians to educate them about the benefits of water exercise for their patients. She also regularly adds and changes her fitness class programming based on studies she reads about aquatic safety and economy of exercise, she says.

NEW DEPTHS

Most club owners with successful aquatics programs treat that programming as a cutting-edge area of their facility and create programs around new research. Management has to understand the value of aquatics in health promotion and maintenance, and support staff has to be capable and trained to provide quality programs, Becker says.

“If you are truly interested in providing fitness, a broad program of aquatic activity opens an opportunity to reach populations that are badly in need of improved fitness,” Becker says. “And it also opens opportunity for maintenance of fitness in extremely fit populations through cross-training.”

Although little research exists so far on the health benefits of aquatics exercise for children, water programming for kids always is a natural fit in family-focused centers, says Patricia Fossella, facility manager of Cranford Pool and Fitness Center in Cranford, NJ.

Fossella's facility offers swim lessons, masters swimming, fitness swimming, swim teams, lifeguard training, water safety instructor classes, and deep and shallow exercise classes to about 500 of the center's 3,000 total summer memberships.

The most important part is getting the word out, she says.

“Any programs you can bring in for kids will bring big dollars,” Fossella says. “Marketing is the key here — websites, local papers, church fliers, PTAs and local TV stations.”

To be successful, club operators must communicate to members and nonmembers that swimming is an important and incredibly beneficial form of exercise for everyone, aquatics directors and researchers say. They also suggest allocating as many resources and as much effort in your aquatics area as you would with any other part of your facility.

“[Aquatics] programs should strive to be professional and aim to exercise and educate the participants,” Nervig of Prairie Life Fitness says. “Sharing information is something that should be encouraged and fostered in all programs.”

RESEARCH ROUNDUP AND HOW TO LEVERAGE IT

It's been long understood that swimming and other aquatics exercise is good for overall health, since it improves cardio-respiratory fitness. Additionally, water is particularly forgiving for people who are overweight or have musculoskeletal issues. Athletes use water workouts to rehabilitate after an injury or to cross train, since it relieves pain and stiffness. In the past, little was known about how swimming helps with bone density and muscular strength and how it compares to other cardiovascular activities. That is all changing, though, with new research.

Bone Density

Because many people thought that working out in the water was not a weight-bearing activity, few people believed aquatics exercise could increase bone density. However, a recent review of studies by Jodi Frank, an aquatics exercise expert and frequent presenter at water fitness conferences and workshops, shows that working out in the water can improve bone health in post-menopausal women versus a control group of women who are not active. One of the reviewed studies found that in women with an average age of 55 who were exercising in the water for an hour three times a week, bone density was either preserved or increased compared to a control group who did not engage in any physical activity.

How You Can Use It: Create an aquatics class for women over 50 years old that focuses on improving bone health.

Muscular Strength

Preliminary research suggests that water has a resistive effect on muscles, creating tension and a calorie burn beyond what's achieved on land. A 2006 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study provided fuel for that hypothesis. Twelve healthy women between the ages of 65 and 70 participated in a 60-minute water exercise class that included aerobic exercise and resistance training with noodles and cuffs three times a week for 24 weeks. Compared to 12 women in the control group, these women had a 3.4 percent increase in lean muscle mass, an 11 percent increase in flexibility, and a 20 percent increase in power, speed, agility and balance through a timed test.

How You Can Use It: Invest in proper resistance equipment for your aquatics area and educate your personal trainers and fitness staff about its use.

Swimming vs. Running

Research on the health benefits of aquatics exercise compared to activities such as running and walking has been scarce, but a 2008 study from the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education compared the health habits and physiological characteristics among swimmers, runners, walkers and sedentary people. Researchers found that swimming has health benefits similar to those of running and was generally more beneficial than walking or a sedentary lifestyle. Swimming also was found to be a lifetime activity (unlike running, which is a more injury-prone activity) that improves cardio-respiratory fitness, flexibility, endurance, aerobic capacity, muscle mass, body composition, cholesterol and quality of life.

How You Can Use It: E-mail your members to promote the health benefits of swimming vs. walking. Invite them to try your pool and consider offering a free class that would show them how they can start working out in the pool and reaping the health benefits.

Where to Learn More