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