People who benefit most from being in water have disabilities. Yet this population is vastly underrepresented in aquatics centers.

This shouldn’t be the case, says Eadric Bressel, EdD.

Bressel is a professor and department head of Kinesiology and Health Science at Utah State University. He has devoted much of his professional career to researching the effects water has on ailing bodies and people with cognitive impairments.

This is more than an academic interest. His 15-year-old son has autism. Bressel discovered early on that his son was a different person in the water. He was active, and his repetitive behavior was all but gone in a pool.

“I thought ‘O.K., this is something to look into,’” Bressel recalls.

He linked up with a colleague who has studied how underwater treadmills benefit people who are obese. Now the two are collaborating on a wide range of research projects — all of which point to improved health when exercising in water.

One big takeaway: Water’s influence on the brain.

What Bressel has observed so far suggests that blood to the brain increases when a body is in water. This can benefit people with cognitive impairments in surprising ways. For example, grip strength, which is closely tied to cognitive function, increases when the test subject is in water. Other studies suggest that people have better memory in the water.

Could this explain why his son is more alert and active in the pool? That’s one of the questions driving Bressel’s research, much of which has been funded by the National Swimming Pool Foundation.

“We’re constantly finding that people have greater strength in water than in land,” Bressel says. “We’re further investigating that.”

In the meantime, he’s challenging the industry to be more proactive in reaching out to people who’d benefit the most in an aquatic environment. Bressel gave a recent keynote at the World Aquatic Health Conference, outlining how aquatics facilities can remove barriers for participation.

There are simple steps operators can take. Bressel says many pools already offer free swim hours to people with disabilities. The problem is few people know about these opportunities.

“A lot of these are just basic marketing issues,” he says. That’s why he suggests taking flyers to schools and pediatric centers.

Another tactic: Waive the cost of admission for the first few sessions. Once they feel comfortable in the facility, they’ll likely become paying customers, Bressel advises.

Perhaps then we’ll see more people with physical and mental challenges swimming alongside able-bodied people.

“It’s the only place some people can be independent, or as some call it, not disabled,” Bressel says.