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The Water Gym

Programming Your Pool for Fitness & Fun

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Survey the scene at pools, aquatic centers and waterparks around the country, and it's easy to see that water-based facilities have come a long way in recent years. But while zero-depth entry and splashy spraygrounds provide patrons an abundance of cutting-edge equipment options, the programming offered at these aquatic wonderlands may be lagging behind.

Sure, a water climbing wall and deluxe twisty slide don't require a formal program to make them fun, but how will you keep your constituents coming back after they've mastered the wall and slid the slide too many times to count? And what about those who aren't ever going to set foot on the slide or climbing wall? Your beautiful aquatic oasis is not just for the under-12 set, is it?

These sorts of fabulous facilities are bringing more and more people of all ages to the water, and there are a variety of creative ways you can get them engaged in the aquatic scene. The key? Think of your aquatic center as a business that needs to support itself. "So many pools are closing now because pools typically have been on someone else's budget," said Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist at USA Swimming. "Costs to operate [a pool] are very draining, and it's a big insight for everyone to understand that aquatics is a business in itself."

So adding programming is not just window dressing, additional activities can help improve your aquatic bottom line—as well as make sure you continue to have an aquatic bottom line.

In fact, it may help to consider your pool like another fitness center, only wetter. You wouldn't want your gymnasium and exercise rooms sitting empty all day, so there's no excuse for a pool with a glassy-smooth surface.

"How can I make this a busy health club—like a water gym—that will look like a [land-based] fitness area?" Nelson suggests you ask. "We have so many individuals in our country who might not be able to start a good fitness program on land because of gravity," she said. "They're overweight, it's too hard on their joints…." But the cushioning buoyancy found in water may make exercise possible for this group. And water can also offer the extra resistance a more fitness-savvy person needs to take a workout to the next level. Either way, once your new crop of aquatic exercisers gets more comfortable, some may add the land-based gym and its activities to their regimen, and those using them already are likely to continue. "If a facility has land and water, the two groups really can benefit by working together and understanding each other, not being so territorial," Nelson said.

So, ready to get your water gym started? Consider adding these activities—selected from the latest trends and packed with health benefits for participants—to your aquatics programming roster.

Ai-Chi/Pi-Yo-Chi

These mind-body exercise methods combine mental focus and relaxation with movements that maximize the water's cushioning resistance to build core strength and range of motion through a progression of movements.

Created by Jun Konno, Ai Chi combines Tai-Chi concepts with Shiatsu and QiGong techniques. It is performed standing in shoulder-deep warm water (88 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit) and includes deep breathing and slow, broad movements of the arms, legs and torso. About 25 square feet per person is ideal to provide adequate room to move, and Ai Chi has been noted as particularly helpful for pain management and as therapy for patients with arthritis, fibromyalgia, COPD, diabetes and multiple sclerosis, as well as amputees and paraplegics. It is also energetic enough to burn calories and get your heart rate moving!

Interestingly, rather than trademark Ai Chi, Konno chose to make it an "open source" practice that anyone may interpret and teach. In the United States, Ruth Sova is the leading instructor, and her Web site includes a variety of resources and information about instructor training (www.ruthsova.com/aichi). In addition, Ai Chi training is offered at many events hosted by the Aquatic Therapy & Rehab Institute (ATRI).

"No two Ai Chi sessions will be the same, and that's as it should be," Sova explains on her Web site. "Every movement will have variations according to what you, your body and your psyche want that day."

Pi-Yo-Chi combines Ai Chi with movements from Pilates and Yoga for another sort of mind-body aqua exercise experience. Dr. Mary Wykle is the developer of this practice, and details and training information are available via the Aquatic Exercise Association's website (www.aeawave.com).

"Both are becoming more and more popular, so training programs are much easier to find now," said Julie See, director of education for the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA). "There is a detailed training course for both, but technically not a certification." However, certification or no, you'll want your staff to get some training before they wade into the water to lead these sorts of classes. "Both are unique formats with special considerations for safety and effectiveness," See explained.

Aquatic Cycling & Running

If jogging on land is too jarring, a training run through the deep end may be the perfect solution! "Running in the water reduces impact stress to the joints while allowing a similar gait—so training or cross training in the pool can improve performance," explained the AEA's See. "[Aquatic running is] great for both injury recovery or regular training."

There is a bit of equipment necessary for these activities: Underwater bikes and shoes are needed for aquatic cycling, which uses the water for extra cushioning and resistance, just as aquatic running does; flotation belts or vests, or buoyancy cuffs for the arms, will keep deep-water runners in proper position as they exercise—and resistance equipment can be added to up the intensity of the workout; shallow-water runners will need aquatic shoes to protect their feet from the bottom of the pool, and they may want some additional resistance as well.

Not only do these exercises add another option to spice up regular workout routines, programs like aquatic running and cycling are nice because once your guests have been taught the basics, they can exercise on their own. "Running programs can easily be adapted to a personal workout, but I still recommend people to work with a trainer or instructor experienced in the activity to initially learn proper technique," See said.

Aquatic Zumba

Land-based Zumba is a fun and sassy dance-based aerobics program that uses Latin music and a combination of moves from assorted Latin dances, including merengue, salsa and cumbia. "Zumba takes traditional dances and puts a fitness twist on them, so they're easier for the average person to learn," said Petra Robinson, senior vice president for fitness industry relationships at Zumba. Each song used in a Zumba routine includes about four basic moves, which can then be modified to add interest and intensity.

And, as you might imagine, aquatic Zumba—a very new program just launched in September 2009—takes this approach into the pool. "We try not to talk very much [during a Zumba class]," Robinson said. "We're not yelling and barking, because we want people to enjoy the music. When you take a traditional aqua aerobics class, some aren't even using music, and there's a lot of barking. That takes away from the enjoyment of the program. Music can become background noise, but it's very important with Zumba."

Aquatic Zumba classes incorporate a variety of music and rhythms, and they're not afraid to let loose a little, Robinson noted. "[Zumba exercisers are] doing moves like wiggling their hips that traditional aquatic aerobics experts consider silly, but at the end of the day, it makes it fun to throw in a little silliness," she said. "This empowers those who are self-conscious."

When the hip swiveling is done beneath the safe cover of water, where no one can really see, it's freeing, Robinson explained. "I have seen a metamorphosis in some students as they're starting to feel better about their bodies," she said. "Really it's not that anything has changed dramatically yet, but they feel freer in the water."

There are a whole slew of different Zumba programs, and each requires a nine-hour specialty training program for instructors. Zumba also recommends AEA certification for water-based instructors and American Fitness Association (AFA) or American Council on Exercise (ACE) certification for land-based instructors. To learn more about the Zumba instructors already operating in your area (who may be looking for a pool in which to hold their classes!), visit www.zumba.com and click on "find instructor." You can also contact Zumba for details on hosting an instructor training session at your facility.

Once you've got a certified instructor, a heated pool, a sound system (even just an iPod and speakers) and a group of participants are all you need to get aquatic Zumba going. Because water-based exercise is a bit more gentle, Robinson suggests seniors as a good target audience for this sort of class, as well as expecting mothers and anyone who may not be quite ready for a high-impact land-based aerobic workout.

Ultimately, however, "Zumba is for everybody," she said. "Zumba is a little edgier, more hip and sexy. It's nice to watch [participants] smile and giggle and wiggle and let loose. They realize this is fun. No one is looking at me, and that's the first step—having a good time. They'll keep coming back and eventually will feel comfortable." And once they do, they may check out some of your land-based exercise options, too.

Adult Swimming Lessons

The suggestions offered so far have looked at ways to get beyond the basics of swimming and use the water for more creative forms of exercise. But don't overlook the importance of offering swimming in its simplest form. "Half of the U.S. adult population can't swim," said Melon (M. Ellen) Dash, president of the Miracle Swimming Institute. And adults are not about to sign up for the tadpole, guppy and shark classes you've developed to appeal to small children.

Dash also notes that more than just not knowing the strokes, a Gallup poll revealed 46 percent of the American adult public to be afraid of the deep end, and even more are fearful of open water and of putting their face in the water. "This affects all economic levels and races," she said. "Across the population you will find those afraid of the water. They may admit it right away, or they may be embarrassed."

This is the particular challenge of teaching adults, she explained. You have to first focus on addressing their fear and feelings about the water. Only then, after they feel comfortable, can they learn how to maneuver in the water or—at the very least—stay afloat and rested until help arrives. Dash, herself a lifelong swimmer, says she "poured her heart" into the book she wrote about this teaching method, and she also offers a DVD and 40-hour online training course via the Miracle Swimming Institute's Web site (www.conquerfear.com).

Swim instructors already certified in another method can get some new ideas and approaches from the book or DVD, but those looking to learn this method from scratch—or train to teach it to others—really need to add the additional 40-hour hands-on workshop as well. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I could never have done it," Dash said her instructor trainees often tell her.

Currently there are 28 Miracle Swimming Institute instructors around the world, most of whom are in the United States, and 4,000 students have completed the courses since 1983. "Some took the whole full-length series and some just the intro classes, but we have a 100-percent success rate," Dash said. "If they stay with us long enough, they get to be free in deep water for as long as they want."

To get started offering this type of class, first be sure your instructors are educated on the methods that work best for addressing fears. Otherwise, class participants will soon determine your program to be no different than the other sorts of swim lessons they've endured, and you may further damage their relationship with the water. Once you're ready, Dash suggests you put up a flyer or make an announcement in your facility newsletter that you're going to be offering a class for people who are afraid in water. "Include information about why that's OK and understandable, and people will come out of the woodwork," she said.

Once you've got a group interested, keep in mind that achieving success will take different amounts of time for different people. "But they all need to start at the beginning," Dash said. At the Miracle Swimming Institute in Florida, they start a beginner class every month, then every other month they offer next-step classes for those ready to progress. This allows beginners to work at their own pace—no pressure—while also making sure the next step is available when the time comes.


Thinking About the Future

Although this article operates under the premise that you have a fabulous facility and would like to have programming to match, there's no reason fantastic aquatic programming options can't spice up a standard rectangular pool. Don't put your programming on hold just because you haven't upgraded your facility yet.

However, trying to be all things to all people in just one pool does have its challenges, including making time for lap swimmers, little splashers and aquatic exercisers on the schedule in the part of the pool where they need to be (deep end? shallow end?) and making the water temperature appropriate for each of these activities.

"Swimmers like cooler water, and kids and older adults like warmer, so many places put the temperature in the middle, at about 84, and nobody is happy," said Sue Nelson of USA Swimming.

"Going toward the future, there's a practical and functional need to build more than one tank or one pool," she said. If you're designing a new facility or an upgrade to your current situation, consider temperature, access and depth as you plan, she suggested. Make sure you'll be able to provide some variety among each of these factors and you'll ensure your new aquatic center is equipped to handle a variety of programming and serve a broad range of needs.


Branching Out From the Basics

"There's always a continuum [in aquatic programming]," said USA Swimming's Nelson. "We don't just say learn to swim, and then you're good to go. The more lessons you get, you'll be stronger and safer in the water."

However, not every kid—or adult, for that matter—is going to want to progress to the swim team (although it's a good idea to have that option for those who do!). So why not offer aquatic youth fitness programs for kids who don't want to be competitive? "These can get a kid on the right track, thinking about nutrition and fitness in a fun way," Nelson said.

The programs described above may be focused on adults initially, but there's no reason not to reach out and incorporate classes tailored to teens and kids as well. Offering an array of aquatic activities—some for challenge and some for fun—"allows you to create a passion for a life fitness activity that will continue from young age to grandparents' age," Nelson said. "If we don't create this passion at a young age, people may only enter aquatics after they have health issues, and it's always better to be preventive."

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