When the city of Monterey Calif., opened >Monterey Sports Center in 1992, it was very much a typical family aquatics center, geared toward recreation, leisure and swim lessons, says William Rothschild, fitness manager.

Since then, a lot has changed. Operators have found great success by significantly expanding aquatic fitness and therapy offerings. In the past several years, the city has hired a professional physical therapy staff, increased aquatic exercise class offerings and partnered with other medical professionals in the community.

As a result, the indoor recreational pool and the therapy pool at the Sports Center are busy from open to close. Today, the facility operates at approximately 94 percent cost recovery.

“I think this is the future of what community recreation centers need to do,” Roths-child says.

Statistics suggest he’s right. Approximately 33 percent of U.S. adults, and 17 percent of children and teens ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As Americans battle this increasingly obvious obesity epidemic, the importance of exercise as preventive care has become something of a national mantra.

What’s more, over 40 million Americans now are over age 65, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. That age group, which also hungers for wellness programs, is growing faster than the overall population.

Meanwhile, leisure-style facilities across the nation are suffering from the ever-shrinking budget phenomenon. According to a December 2011 online survey of approximately 460 Aquatics International readers, 64 percent indicated their operations have been directly affected by budget cuts as a result of the recession.

If you’re in the same position, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that there’s no simple answer. Donations and grants can provide emergency stopgap support, but there’s no security in the long-term. What you need is a stable new revenue source with growth potential. And health and wellness programming offers a sure cure, as it did in Monterey. 

That message is starting to get out to the industry, though not as much as it should be, say experts. In the Aquatics International survey, 34 percent say their organizations have plans to increase health and wellness programming in the next three to five years. Nearly one-quarter say that health/fitness/exercise programming already generate a substantial amount of revenue for their facilities.

“It becomes critical in an economy like we’ve had the past three or four years, where people are selective in how they spend their money,” says Mel Roberts, superintendent of the Leigh Pratt Aquatic Center in Tooele, Utah. When you add health and wellness programming to the mix, he says, “They feel like it’s an investment in their health; they’re not just spending money.”

Roberts recognizes that more leisure pools like his should be getting some of that money. With a little creativity and common sense, you, too, can turn your leisure pool into a health and wellness hub. As you get with the program, you’ll improve the health of your community — and bulk up your bottom line.

Opportunities abound

Aquatic fitness programming makes sense because “pools have the potential to reach a wide variety of participants who will benefit from the health, wellness and fitness benefits found in aquatic exercise — or vertical aquatic programming,” says Julie See, president and director of education at theAquatic Exercise Association. That includes those with limited swimming ability, and populations for whom dry-land exercise is not an appropriate activity, such as seniors with joint conditions and those with injuries or other physical limitations. Though traditionally viewed as recreational, leisure pools with their winding lazy rivers and varying water depths, offer unique opportunities to offer these programs.

To determine the direction of health and wellness programming that’s right for your facility, look to your community. Make the effort to really understand what the local needs are in terms of health and fitness.

For example, in Prince George’s County, Md., there is a disproportionately high number of individuals with type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As a result, that’s one area local recreation leaders are focusing on as they ramp up efforts to increase the emphasis on health and wellness opportunities, says Tara Eggleston, countywide aquatics coordinator for The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Department of Parks and Recreation in Prince George’s County.

Health and wellness options that could fit into a leisure pool environment include individual personal training; small group programs (two to five individuals); and larger group exercise classes. There are also

land-based possibilities. Look to your deck space and consider opportunities such as developing a speaker series, suggests aquatics consultant Judith Leblein-Josephs, president of JLJ Enterprises, LLC, in Wayne. N.J. For example, you might reach out to health professionals in your community, such as EMTs, nutritionists or psychologists, and invite them to come and speak on their areas of expertise.

In addition to contracting with licensed professional physical therapists, as the Monterey Sports Center has, another way you might serve patrons in need of therapy is to develop programs designed to alleviate symptoms associated with specific conditions, such as joint pain. TheSilliman Activity & Family Aquatic Center in Newark, Calif., features an indoor lap pool, and a zero-depth entry activity pool with a play structure and two water slides. Operators started an arthritis program two years ago, and so far it’s been quite successful, says Peter Beireis, senior recreation supervisor.

If an arthritis program such as the one at Silliman is not ideal for your market, other successful programs have focused on conditions including multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia. For markets where there’s a greater interest in more fitness-oriented programming, a good place to start is with tried and true options, including aqua aerobics and water walking.

Also consider newer innovations such as adaptations of what’s popular on dry land. Liberty Lagoon in Baton Rouge, La., is a typical leisure pool facility that includes a lazy river and several water slides. Among other fitness-oriented classes, operators offer Aqua Zumba, a water-based version of the popular Zumba dance program integrated with traditional aqua fitness disciplines.

“All fitness programs give customers the chance to see the facility and its amenities,” says Chad Brewer, publicity and marketing manager at BREC, which operates the facility. “This entices patrons to return and use the facility during normal operating hours with the rest of the general public.”

Brewer also points out another reason that health and fitness programming at Liberty Lagoon is important to the success of the facility as well as the health and safety of the community. “Offering the fitness classes in which you can stand/run in the water that you are working out in allows those who cannot swim the chance to still participate in aquatic exercising,” he says.

Programs focused on relaxation and stress relief offer another avenue for wellness programming. These might include aqua yoga, aqua tai chi or even dry-land offerings. You might consider partnerships with wellness professionals, including massage therapists and chiropractors, Leblein-Josephs notes.

Suit your space

Leisure pool facilities come in all shapes and sizes, so success in offering health/fitness programming comes down to meeting the specific needs of your market by utilizing the space you have. Even in shallow water there’s a lot you can do, says Terri Smith, designer, Water Design Inc. in Salt Lake City.

Eggleston agrees. “I know of a couple of facilities that utilize elements such as their lazy river currents to offer water fitness classes that focus on building strength and endurance using the resistance of the lazy river current,” Eggleston notes. “I have also seen catch pools used for instructional programs.”

Here are some other factors to consider.

Water condition Because programs such as aquatic therapy require different water temperatures and depths than recreational lap swimming and other traditional programs, you’ll want to spend time working out which programs can work best for your facility, and how you can ensure that your patrons and staff are as comfortable as possible in the water. 

Scheduling “It’s important to offer the right service at the right time,” Eggleston says. That’s true no matter what kind of program you’re offering, but there’s a little more to it when it comes to health and fitness. For example, if you are going to run a class for those with arthritis, maybe the early morning is not the best time because many with arthritis experience the most stiffness and pain in the morning.

Remember that individuals who come to your facility for health and fitness will likely have different expectations than traditional user groups such as swim lessons or teams. To avoid conflicts such as running an aqua tai chi class alongside a rowdy swim team practice, you’ll want to pay extra attention to how you block out pool time.

Start by blocking out the programs to which you are absolutely committed, such as open swim hours or swim team lane rental, and consider implementing any new policies that might help eliminate any issues between groups sharing the space, Smith suggests.

Equipment As aquatic health and wellness programming has becomes more prevalent, a number of manufacturers have developed specialized products. Examples include underwater “gyms” and all kinds of ancillary items such as aqua belts.

“We’re seeing a huge surge in [modular swim jet] currents that you can retrofit to your existing pool,” Smith says.

Determining which items might be worth considering for your leisure facility is one question that you’ll need to address in adapting your building for health programming. You also may want to consider investing in accessibility, even beyond what is now legally required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Aquatics offers a number of health benefits specific for those with limited mobility, and if they are not comfortable with the means by which you provide access to your pool, they simply won’t come, Smith adds.

Maintenance and upkeep When visiting a medical facility or private health club, the expectation is that it will be extremely clean. If you don’t provide the same high standards of maintenance at your facility, experts suggest that it will be difficult to retain patrons who come for your health and wellness programming.

“We spend a lot of time on how the facility looks,” Rothschild says. “Keeping it well-maintained and clean is what’s going to keep them coming back for years.”

To market

Once you have a plan on track for health-oriented programming, marketing what you offer is essential.

“Most patrons do not automatically think of leisure pools as fitness hubs, so managers have to work to educate their patrons on how their facilities can serve multiple needs of the community, fun and fitness.” Eggleston says.

To broaden the perception of what you offer, start by developing your staff. Ensure that everyone understands the vision of your facility as a place for health and wellness. Provide the best possible training, and recruit the best team possible.

At the Silliman Activity & Family Aquatic Center, training for the arthritis program was provided by the Arthritis Association. Beireis credits the success of the program so far to the quality of the instructors. “It’s all in the nature of the instructor,” he adds.

To get the public to see your pool as a place for serious fitness or therapy, a smart place to start is including specific health information in your class descriptions. But be careful not to become too serious. Remember that many of the folks you may want to target may not be comfortable with the idea of fitness. If you come on too strong, “they may be afraid it is out of their league,” Smith suggests.

You can also use available communication tools — including printed brochures, signage and social media — to get creative. “Managers can post fun facts about physical activity on or near water slides and features to help educate patrons on the health and wellness benefits of water play … ” Eggleston says. “The messages can be fun and quirky, but should also be informative. 

For instance, posting a fun sign at the bottom or middle of your water-slide stairs that says, ‘Did you know walking up and down stairs burns up around 350 to 800 calories an hour?’ gets patrons to think about the benefits of climbing your feature stairs, rather than dreading the experience.”

Also stay on top of the latest scientific research. If you can provide statistics and data, that can go a long way toward establishing your credibility, Eggleston adds.

And credibility is important because word of mouth can go a long way, Roberts observes. That means focusing on customer service and developing relationships.  “When people visit our facility for the first time, many are new to the community. We give them a tour of the facility and a pass for their family to use sometime,” he says. “... Once they experience it and feel the benefits as well as the social aspects, they become regulars.”

Promotional devices are another great way to encourage your clients and build your reputation as a provider of health and wellness. Like the Monterey Sports Center, The Leigh Pratt Aquatic Center was not originally designed specifically as a fitness center, but by promoting the facility as a place for exercise and therapy, operators have found a way to bring in patrons who otherwise might not have been interested in aquatics, and keep them coming back.

The center’s 100-mile club — recognizing individuals who swim or water-walk more than 100 miles, or participate in more than 100 hours of aquatic exercise classes — keeps the facility busy throughout the day. It’s also helped increase attendance more than 10 percent in the last several years, Roberts says.

“At first I was skeptical,” he recalls. But now he has patrons coming to him with ideas on how to build the program further. Some participants have even gotten friends and family involved, making it clear that the idea works. “It’s pretty satisfying as an operator when people come in and tell you ‘thanks’ and they’re clearly proud of what they’ve done,” Roberts says.

He and others have discovered that maximizing health and wellness opportunities is not about trying to promote your leisure operation as something it’s not, and it doesn’t require a shiny new pool, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. But it can bring in new revenue by drawing in patrons who need what aquatic health programming can provide, including the obese, those with limited mobility, individuals recovering from injury, and those who are not strong swimmers.

And it can go a long way toward ensuring the health of your leisure facility. As Beireis puts it, health and wellness programming is “the new trend, as far as financial viability goes.”