As a physician and aquatic researcher, I have seen firsthand the absolutely amazing effects that water can have in recovering and promoting health across the age span and across many, many clinical situations. I am told nearly daily of the remarkable results people have achieved through the simple process of immersing their bodies and moving through the aquatic environment. My clinical experience and research have validated these many anecdotes.
Yet my frustration is profound. It is not only the medical profession, but also the general public who seem to lack any knowledge of these amazing results. Unfortunately, a great many aquatics professionals also lack insight into the incredible possibilities that would be opened on our nation’s public health and health expenditures through a broader use of the aquatic environment.
For the past three decades I have struggled to find an effective way to communicate these potential benefits, and yet my mission is largely unfinished. Certainly, there is an emerging public awareness of the benefits. I am often asked to contribute to lay magazines and newspapers. There is a growing body of medical literature, and new research studies being done.
Yet the impact upon the general public and upon bureaucratic structures such as civic planners, insurance companies and federal agencies remains very small indeed. Economic forces have caused public pool closures nationwide and a reduction in new facilities being built, further reducing access for an increasingly overweight and unfit public. If I had hair left, I’d be pulling it out.
The effects of immersion are truly immense upon the human body. I’ve written of these extensively in the third edition of my textbook Comprehensive Aquatic Therapy, and I will be discussing these effects in the Aquatics International Virtual Conference launching in early November.
By increasing their understanding of the range and power of these effects and consequent health benefits, aquatics professionals could be far more effective in marketing programs and facilities to the public. Of course, the best marketing is targeted, so knowing the specifics can be very helpful in development of community programs and new aquatics facilities.
In a nation afflicted with childhood obesity, communities should be aggressively promoting pool activity, swim lessons, aquatic team sports and the like. The aquatic environment is incredibly effective in promoting fitness, weight loss, cardiovascular health and even potentially reducing the incidence of diabetes.
In areas with large retirement populations, communities should be promoting aquatics for prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, reducing the impact of arthritis, building balance and strength to sustain independence and better managing the impact of neurologic problems.
For active fit communities, there should be increased publicity of the benefits of aquatic cross-training to promote improved respiratory health, while reducing joint loading and even further improving cardiorespiratory fitness.
Yet we rarely see these programs promoted in the media. Is this because the media chooses to ignore the benefits, or is it because we as professionals have failed to educate the media? Is our failure to educate because we are lousy educators or because we are poorly informed ourselves? In both cases, I have had to conclude it is all too often the latter.
For nearly 50 years, the impact of immersion has been shown scientifically to positively affect cardiac function, while producing forces that can aid in increasing respiratory strength and endurance. Aquatic immersion improves circulation and muscle blood flow, aiding in oxygen delivery to injured and healing tissues. Even the Greeks and Romans understood that it improves kidney function, aiding in elimination of metabolic waste products.
Recent research has shown that immersion produces a positive effect upon the central nervous system that might aid in the management of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD,) and maybe even in learning disorders. These are effects that have broad applicability in most American communities, yet I do not see them publicized. America spends more per capita on health care than any other nation: 17.4 percent of GDP in 2009, yet ranked eighth in average life span, with many of the causes of our earlier demise (heart disease, chronic inactivity and deconditioning, hypertension) clearly within the realm of potential positive impact from a broader use of aquatics nationally.
Why is it that we have not acted more aggressively in promoting our field? Certainly the pharmaceutical industry has been active publicly and legislatively, advocating for the health benefits of its products. Billboards, public service announcements and television advertising speak to the value of the health care industry in improving health. Yet the aquatics industry has been pretty quiet in speaking to its potential value in promoting improved health and in facilitating recovery from illness or injury. As Pogo so famously once said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”
Do we need more research to prove these benefits? Yes, but there is a lot of research currently existing that supports my contentions, and more seems to be generated monthly.
The aquatic environment is remarkably benign, with perhaps the broadest safety margin of any therapeutic activity. The public seems to be increasingly aware of some of the benefits, but our national legislative leaders are not, nor are insurance company executives, civic planners, or other groups that might collaborate in increasing public awareness and access. That should be our mission, not necessarily out of profit motive (though that will follow), but out of civic duty, fiscal responsibility and altruistic betterment of the nation’s health.
The November virtual conference can strive to stimulate some thoughts about how to move this agenda forward. Naturally, it will take combined action to reach these many audiences. All of us should be effectively informed foot soldiers in this battle, and I certainly plan to be marching with the army.