Some of this decade’s most important aquatics advancements may be attributed to polio. Dr. Bruce Becker is leading groundbreaking research on the health benefits of water, and it was his childhood experience with the illness that first introduced him to the therapeutic effects of aquatics. Becker, a clinical professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and a research professor at Washington State University, was treated at what is now Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis — and he still remembers the therapy pool there.
His professional interest in aquatic therapy began when he started working with elite athletes through the Nike Olympic Development Program in the mid-1980s.
“It blew me away how fast they recovered [with aquatic therapy],” he recalls. After applying the same therapies with his traditional rehab patients, Becker became “an early adopter” and began actively promoting aquatic therapy.
However, he ran into a significant roadblock. There was little clinical research to support his results with patients. After concluding that he’d either need to encourage others to do research or do it himself, Becker began to look for funding. It was five years ago that he first developed a relationship with the National Swimming Pool Foundation.
“When I first spoke to the NSPF board, I don’t know if they really understood the tremendous public health value of more broadly encouraging aquatic participation from a public health standpoint,” Becker recalls.
Now, approximately five years later, he’s heading up the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute at WSU, established in 2008 through his relationship with NSPF. It’s Becker’s hope that the institute becomes “the center of the universe in terms of research in this field.”
With Becker at the helm, that’s not out of the question. Completed research has documented the benefits of immersion, and further research will seek to explain why activity in the water is good for the human body.
A graduate of Tulane Medical School, Becker says that early on he encountered skepticism, but as the body of research grows, he’s seeing more acceptance of hydrotherapy and aquatic fitness. In the end, it’s the results that keep him going.
“It has been breathtaking to me to watch the positive changes in the folks I’ve worked with,” he explains.