Her whole life, Dorothy Hamilton feared going into the water. The 64-year-old, retired, Chicago-area teacher had never learned how to swim.
But five years ago, Hamilton discovered she didn’t need to swim laps to get use out of the pool at her fitness center. Urged originally by her doctor to get in the water for exercise due to osteoarthritis in her knee, Hamilton signed up for a water aerobics class and now goes about five times a week for group sessions.
Hamilton says she started out hugging the edge of the pool, but slowly her confidence increased during classes. She has even learned to swim now, but she says she prefers the exercise classes, which have a more fun atmosphere than the laps.
“Being in the pool is almost like dancing for me,” she says. “I love being around other people. And it’s an uplifting start to the day.”
More and more pool facilities now are adjusting to meet the fitness needs of people such as Hamilton, who want to be in the water burning calories and having fun without doing the butterfly or breast strokes. Offerings are expanding from aerobics to newer water exercise ideas such as kick-boxing, yoga, and underwater treadmills and bicycles. As baby boomers age, experts say demand will only continue to grow. They add that savvy operators who know how to tap into this trend can bring in new patrons — and revenue sources.
Choosing the right exercise programs for the facility depends on the community’s demographics. Less than 5 percent of Americans can swim 400 yards without stopping, whereas 98 percent can walk in the water, says John Spannuth, president/CEO of U.S. Water Fitness Association in Boynton Beach, Fla. With the possibility of that kind of increase in pool use, Spannuth is baffled why any new facility would design its pool with depths too deep for walking. Offerings in water fitness can reach people from nearly all demographics, he says.
When swimmers do laps in pools, they like to have an entire lane to themselves. But as many as 35 people can fit into one lane walking back and forth, Spannuth says. Even if the pool walkers have to sometimes adjust to get out of each other’s way in a crowded lane, that’s still good exercise, he says.
“What’s happening is lap swimming lanes are being greatly reduced because aquatics facilities are interested in serving as many people as possible and creating revenue,” Spannuth says. “Space is money. And every inch of water that is not being used is costing money.”
One such group getting into the pool in large numbers to work out has been seniors. Nancy Arnold, aquatics director at the Princeton Club in Madison, Wis., organizes buses to pick up seniors from nearby assisted living homes for twice-weekly discounted exercise sessions on land and in water. Most in the groups choose the aquatic option, she says.
Arnold likens the scene to the popular film “Cocoon,” in which the pool became a healing source for a group of elderly.
“‘Cocoon’ was right,” Arnold says. “We don’t go into outer space, but the water really is a miracle cure.”
The senior groups, which come during the downtime for pool use on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, don’t have to pay membership fees. Many have told Arnold that their workouts have helped them in ways land exercises could not.
“Seniors are saying their balance has improved since coming,” she says. “We can challenge them a lot more than we could on land.”
After hour-long programs in the water led by an instructor, Arnold says the seniors are allowed to hang out and ask questions. “It’s kind of an education for them, too,” she says. “And they love it.”
But the elderly are only a small part of the demographics coming into facilities to exercise in pools. “I’ve heard a lot that the water is just for fat people, old people and people in rehab,” Arnold says. “And my response is, ‘Have you ever seen a professional swimmer?’”
More and more people, including land-based athletes and fitness buffs, are seeing the water as an alternative to get or remain in great shape.
For example, the Princeton Club has been training marathoners and tri-athletes in the pool. “You can work out on land, then go into the water the next day without damaging your body,” Arnold says. “Say you’re a Monday, Wednesday, Friday lifter. On Tuesday and Thursday, you can come into the pool and do a different type of workout. And your body can do that. Someone who is looking for that extra little bit can use the water to do that.”
Water fitness groups have attracted those into a little less hard-core workout as well. Ruth Ann Paul, aquatics manager at the Aquatic and Fitness Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., says the warm water and quiet atmosphere can help people relax.
“Especially for the working people, they can unwind from a long day,” she says.
Young mothers after childbirth also have found the water to have a perfect pace for their fitness, Paul says.
Different strokes for different folks
Regardless of one’s physical condition, water can open up more possibilities for individuals with restricted movement on land. “This is the type of exercise anyone can do. It’s not like you have to look like a million dollars,” Paul says.
Part of the draw for many is that exercise in the water doesn’t seem like such hard work, though many believe it actually is more strenuous due to the resistance in the water.
“It doesn’t really feel like a workout,” says DeDee Williams, the special programs supervisor at the Loyola Center for Health & Fitness in Maywood, Ill. “It feels like you’re just playing in the pool.”
For that reason, exercise groups have been growing among children. But for them, it is marketed more as just a fun time in the water, something with more variety and excitement than just learning swimming strokes. For kids, offering plenty of games and water toys are a big plus, as well as a fun ending to the class.
Currently, the biggest revenue producer for aquatics facilities is swim instruction for children age 5 and younger, Spannuth says. However, he believes that will soon be replaced by the growing trend in individualized water exercise sessions.
“Within five years, personal training will be the biggest producer of revenue for aquatics facilities,” he says. “We know of many places that already have more than 100 personal training sessions per week. That gives you a rough idea of how it is already starting to grow.”
Those individualized sessions can cost between $50 and $150, he adds. Despite those prices, many aquatics directors agree that a key to keep people coming back into the pool is variety. The offerings for aquatic exercise have increased dramatically in the past couple of years.
Hamilton remembers when her club just offered water aerobics. Now there’s kickboxing, Pilates and yoga, among many offerings. Many ideas are translations of land exercises set to work in the water.
Rebecca “Boo” Pfeiffer invented the now international Poolates program three years ago. She had previously been a Pilates instructor before some of her students convinced her to try teaching lessons in the water. Pfeiffer says she reviewed the principles of Pilates before determining how she could make the transition to the pool.
“I tried to take the essence into the aquatic environment,” she says. She found the two fit well, especially in a focus on core muscles.
Convincing newcomers to try her program has been slow at times, Pfeiffer admits. But once they have tried it most, if not all, have embraced it, she says.
“It has been incredibly enlightening and incredibly frustrating at the same time. There’s still this idea that aquatics is fringy and it’s just for special populations,” she says. “But I’ve learned that with proper education, people become open-minded.”
Along with Pfeiffer’s success, there have been countless other transformations from land exercises to the pool at aquatics facilities across the country. The problem, however, is that instructors may be trained in yoga instruction, but not aquatics.
Spannuth agrees that not every land exercise works in the water, and that all instructors should receive aquatics training for their particular exercise program if they are to teach it in a pool.
Many, such as Arnold, require their instructors to receive national, not local certification. Others pay instructors with more training a higher salary. “Land and water are so different,” Arnold says. “[New instructors] have to understand how the water works with the body.”
David Rowland, president of Cornerstone Aquatics Center in West Hartford, Conn., says along with finding dedicated water instructors, he also tries to match instructors with the needs and atmosphere of the classes.
“For our evening classes [a more intense workout], we have a younger instructor. The people who come in the evenings are looking for a more intense, upbeat workout,” he says. “With our morning classes [oriented toward the retired crowd], it’s not only exercise, but also social interaction. So, yeah, it’s better if we can find someone at their age that they feel more comfortable with.”
Those instructors serve as spokespeople for the facility’s programs. And marketing the classes generally comes from word-of-mouth, says Cindy Dorman, the aquatics manager at Cornerstone. But they also advertise in local magazines and in their monthly newsletter. Other managers agree that word-of-mouth referrals have been their most successful marketing technique.
But offering deep discounts to fill slow weekday afternoons with seniors, such as that done by Arnold, are another way to increase attendance and revenue. Arnold’s strategy was to attract seniors with a $2 per hour package. Though the discount came at a cost to Arnold, it was more of a service to the community. But her program became so popular that now she’s making money in the afternoon sessions.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money in order to get a good workout,” Williams says.