In honor of National Physical Therapy Month, Global Health Aging is presenting a weekly four-part article series on aquatic therapy. This is Part 3 in this series. Part 1 focused on the aquatic therapy marketplace and Part 2 focused on selecting an aquatic practitioner. Click here to read Part 4.
Selecting an aquatic facility may be one of the most personal considerations for a prospective aquatic patron. Depending upon an individual’s circumstances, the choice of which facility is best for each patron may vary. At one extreme, there are classes in a resort location, on the shore of a beach or off the dock of a lake home. However, the most common facility is the community pool.
Different health considerations and performance or functional objectives may be central to any patron’s focus. Therefore, an aquatic consultant may be helpful in isolating a patron’s specific requirements. This article focuses on natatoriums (indoor swimming pools) that are open year round as well as some of the many important features of an indoor facility including Access and Water Temperature/Depth.
- Zero Depth Entry
- Wide Stairs with Handrail(s)
- Chair Lift
- Pool Ladder
Getting into and out of a pool can be a problem for a large number of people who will benefit from aquatic therapy and exercise. In the bullet list above, Zero Depth Entry is the most desirable way to enter the water gradually. Consider wave pools designed with a wide cement slope into deeper and deeper waters of the pool.
In a cost-effective simulation to the wave pool design, a sloping ramp that may actually contain a turnaround or two is ideal. It is much like wading into the ocean, but without the risk of shells underfoot, jellyfish stings, or waves that knock one off balance. In essence, a patron may walk or move their wheelchair into the water using a gently sloping ramp.
Wide Stairs: Ideally, handrails on both sides are sufficient for at least 90 percent of patrons accessing the pool waters. These standard rise pool steps are very helpful in performing some types of therapeutic exercises; a definite plus for most patrons.
Chair Lift: This is very important to consider as land-based ambulation requires canes, walkers and especially wheelchairs. One note of caution to wheelchair-bound patrons: transition between wheel chair and chair lift can be challenging. In addition to a lifeguard on duty, a patron needs a caregiver to assist and perhaps even accompany the patron into the pool. Skill set, including licensing and certification requirements for practitioners and instructors, is undefined in this circumstance. In other words, the patron’s aided entrance into the pool cannot be assumed to come from the aquatic practitioner.
Pool Ladder: Despite being the most difficult to use, pool ladders affixed to the poolside and deck can be quick and accessible for patrons with sufficient upper body strength and balance. Safe entry into the pool from a ladder attached to the pool deck requires backwards entry. Patrons should consider placing one foot on each subsequent rung although it is more important to focus on the distance between the bottom last rung and pool floor, especially if the patron is not “water safe” (able to float, swim or otherwise not panic when not grounded to the pool floor).
Emphasis must be restated on the requisite upper-body strength to hoist oneself up each rung of the ladder if no easier exit is available.
Temperature: In most circumstances, temperature and depth are equally important. Patrons can generally tolerate aquatic aerobic exercise at 78 degrees F and up to about 84 degrees F or perhaps 85 degrees F. Therapeutic water temperatures are best between 88 degrees F and 92+ degrees F. However, some medical conditions like multiple sclerosis need cooler temperatures even though temperature considerations can also affect certain people with diabetes and some neurologic or degenerative conditions. Arthritis patients have their own specific condition guidelines: 84-88 degrees F for exercise and 92-100 degrees F for therapy.
Note: Facilities that come close to the temperatures necessary for a patron’s specific use can still be considered when the patron invests in warm-water apparel such as a wet vest or aquatic wetsuit.
Depth: Manufacturers in the personal and therapy pool industry tend to hover around a 4-foot-8 to 5-foot-2 inches maximum depth for vertical exercise applications. These parameters seem to target patrons at or below 6-foot in height, which means that a waist belt or noodle is employed to support patrons adequately to achieve full range of motion (ROM) of extremities when suspended (not touching the pool floor) in water.
Depth, of course, is a specifically personal consideration, especially when a patron may not be “water safe.” Comfort in the water, where a patron is able to relax and not panic, is the ultimate consideration in patrons who are self-described as “afraid of the water.”
The choice of water depth is sometimes also a personal consideration. In therapy, if the focus is rehabilitating a joint on a lower extremity, the patron will begin in deeper water, somewhere between shoulder and chest or sternum depth, and progress to more weight-bearing, shallower water when the muscles and joints are stronger. However, depending upon an individual’s center of buoyancy or COB (as it relates to lean muscle mass), it may be difficult for some patrons to stay grounded on the pool floor. If the patron is not water safe, staying grounded will be necessary for the participant to remain relaxed. Fear induces muscular tension which can be counter-productive in aquatic therapies and exercise. Involuntary or unintentional rigidity of muscles may increase the chance of injury and it will make the patron more likely to sink. At a minimum, the tension may inhibit the participant’s ability to perform the exercises with proper form and control; thus making the time spent working not as effective as it can be.
Deep water exercise tends to encourage the use of flotation devices like noodles, hand buoys, and waist belts. By far, the waist belt is the most effective equipment to use in water when performing vertical workouts like cross-country skiing, deep water running, leaping, jumping jacks and other moves where all limbs may be working concurrently. A noodle may be straddled between the legs or wrapped around the back either at the waist or under the arms. Hence, deep water can be a very rigorous form of aerobic work, targeting not only muscle strength but also endurance. Deep water exercise can also enhance range of motion when performed slowly or with a hold between changes of direction of the limbs. One of the most important considerations about deep water work is that postural alignment is maintained with shoulders back (and down) over the hips. This alignment is critical in maintaining core strength and minimizing back strain.
The task of selecting a facility has so very many different considerations to review in making a choice. Often, an aquatic patron does not have the luxury of a large selection of facilities available to them. When visiting a facility and observing the staff and instructors, all these ideas will prepare the new patron to be watchful of conditions, which can make it necessary to plan and prepare ahead of their first aquatic therapy or exercise experience. A good question to always ask on a site inspection is whether towels are provided.
Water is, for most people, a therapeutic medium when comfort of the patron is properly addressed. Plan to heal, grow stronger and enjoy!
Felecia Fischell is an Aquatic Specialist with twenty-three years experience in aquatics. She leads aquatic classes and consults as an aquatic personal trainer and a swim instructor at the Franklin County Family YMCA in Virginia. Formerly the Founder of FunLife Aquatics Consulting in Maryland, Felecia presents at health fairs and has given aquatic presentations to high schools, Howard County Board of Education, Howard County General Hospital and Howard County Community College.