An Interview by Lenny Giteck
In the six years since Dr. Tom Lachocki became CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation, NSPF has given more than $3.5 million in grant money for scientific research into aquatics, a figure that represents approximately 30% of the organization's total funds. The underlying goal of the NSPF's largess, according to Lachocki: to dramatically increase Americans' use of pools and spas.
"The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 400 million annual swimming 'events' — defined as when one person goes into a pool — in this country," Lachocki relates. "We want to help raise that tenfold. If we can get up to four billion, you're going to see fewer Americans with Type 2 diabetes, fewer with heart disease, fewer with certain forms of cancer, and so forth. In terms of the elderly, there will be a reduction in slips and falls due to lack of balance, and the broken bones that result."
NSPF, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., raises virtually all of its grant money by creating a wide range of aquatics-related educational materials and seminars, and selling them to pool and spa professionals. The industry itself does not provide direct financial support. "One of the advantages we have being an independent, nonprofit organization is that when people look at the results of the research we fund, they can never say, "Well, you get your money from the industry. Of course your results come out positive."
WaterShapes spoke with Lachocki — who earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Louisiana State University — about the role his organization plays in funding aquatics research, the results that research is yielding and what work still needs to be done.
What kind of research do your grants fund?
We try to create a balance: About half of the money goes into prevention topics and half goes into health-benefit topics. We mostly fund research into the health benefits of swimming, but also research into how to prevent the outbreak of recreational water illnesses, and how to prevent drownings, diving injuries and chemical incidents.
Can you give some examples of the projects?
Sure. We're funding research at Indiana University on the psychological benefits of swimming. At Utah State, we're funding research on the exercise benefits of treadmills in the water versus treadmills on the land. We've funded a study at West Virginia University on Type 2 diabetics and prediabetics. A major project we're involved with is to support the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute, which Dr. Bruce Becker has established at Washington State University. Bruce's focus is on the physiological effects of aquatics, and the NSPF has committed to providing $1 million to his efforts over a five-year period.
What's keeping us from reaching the four-billion figure you mentioned?
There have been a number of studies showing why more Americans don't swim. One study, not widely publicized, showed that a surprising number of people simply are afraid of the water — in the range of 40% to 60%, depending on the type of water we're talking about. Other studies show that people's body image is a factor, that the perceived inconvenience is a factor — a range of things.
In my view, a major reason we're not at four billion right now is because of how poorly we've done at making the bad things go away. If we can accomplish that, it's going to open the door to enormous growth. But when people go to a pool and wind up with a rash or they get Legionnaires' disease or diarrhea, or a loved one of theirs drowns, they become champions against aquatics. We're not going to get to that four-billion figure if we don't get a better handle on the negatives.
Traditionally, there has been a reluctance on the part of many pool and spa professionals to address the risks with clients. Is that still the case?
The attitude still exists, but not as much as a decade ago. Are there companies today that minimize their discussion about drowning-prevention strategies with homeowners? Absolutely. The thing is, we can't hide from these issues. Last year, there was national legislation requiring anti-entrapment drain covers for pools and spas. If we try to hide from these issues, if we try to skirt them, more legislation is likely in the future. So the question is, are we going to solve the problems — or are we going to have people in Washington, who are less knowledgeable about the problems than we are, trying to solve them for us? The latter route is an awful way to go.
Let's talk about the positive side. What is research telling us about the health benefits of swimming?
I'll start with heart health. When you submerge a human body up to the shoulders in water — and this is true in a hot tub as well as in a pool — hydrostatic pressure is exerted and the body responds over the course of time. How? Simply due to the increased pressure, more blood is forced into your central organs, and your heart pumps a greater volume of blood with every stroke. Also, your heart stretches in order to do that.
There are two basic things you heart does when it gets exercise: It pumps faster and it stretches to pump more blood. When you look at heart health, the key metric isn't how many times the heart beats, but how much it stretches to pump more blood with every stroke and thereby get more oxygen into the body.
Let's talk about elite athletes. Their resting pulse rate is lower than yours or mine. If ours is, say, at 70, theirs may be at 60 or 58. Elite athlete's hearts are able to beat fewer times per minute not because they need less blood and less oxygen pumped through their bodies. Their hearts beat more slowly because their hearts tend to stretch and pump more blood per stroke.
Now, when you're sitting in a hot tub or standing in a pool for an extended period of time, your heart tends to pump about 30% more blood per stroke on average. When the typical sedentary person goes to a gym and exercises, their heart also tends to pump about 30% more blood. So just sitting in a hot tub or standing in a pool can give your heart similar benefits as working out in a gym. Of course, the benefit is increased even further if you're actually swimming, walking around in the water, throwing a beach ball or playing with the kids.
Does the research indicate that swimming can help people live longer?
As I've noted, various projects we've supported have shown that if people immerse themselves or exercise in water on a regular basis, they're going to live healthier lives. But until now, researchers have essentially been making hypotheses about the longevity of people who engage in aquatics. Now we actually have a study that takes this out of the realm of supposition.
A longitudinal database has been compiled at the Cooper Institute in Dallas from health research on men who've been studied for the past 37 years. Over the last two years, NSPF has funded Dr. Steven Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina — and, by the way, a former head of the Cooper Institute — to examine the database and look at the population of swimmers versus the population of sedentary people, the population of walkers and the population of runners.
What Dr. Blair and his team have discovered is pretty eye-opening. They found that the risk of premature death for the swimmers was half that of the sedentary population. OK, not a big surprise. But they also found that the swimmers' risk of death was about half that of the walkers' risk, and also about half that of the runners' risk. Wow!
The only downside of the study probably was that they didn't have a lot of swimmers who had died. So as time goes on and those numbers increase, the statistics could change a bit. But the results will remain extremely relevant in demonstrating that the risk of death for swimmers is much lower than for these other populations.
What's really powerful about this research is that it verifies the studies of all those other scientists who have been hypothesizing that if you swim or exercise in the water, your risk of dying prematurely will go down. Here's a study that says we can measure your risk of dying, and the swimmers' risk is considerably lower.
Do you think the industry has done a good job at educating the public about the benefits of swimming and aquatic exercise?
No. We haven't done a very good job at educating people about the positives — and as I've said, we haven't done a very good job at turning around the negatives. There are lots of terrific people in the pool and spa industry, and their hearts are in the right place. But I really think many of them don't truly grasp how important this kind of education is for the long-term growth of the industry, nor do I think they really understand the impact of the negative aquatics-related events that seem to happen all the time. To me, that's nothing short of tragic.
What is your dream for aquatic research in this country?
To tell you the truth, when you step back and look at the amount of aquatics research that has been done, it's pathetic. Compare the research on aquatics with what as been done on treadmills, on running, on weightlifting and on other sports. In those fields, there have been literally thousands of published studies over the past year. When you go to an organization like the American College of Sports Medicine, out of thousands of presentations on healthy-activity research, there may be one or two related to aquatics.
So little research has been done on aquatics, relatively speaking, that we lack credibility with influencers around the world. By "we," I mean the aquatics field as a whole. I hope that if we go back to the American College of Sports Medicine in 10 or 20 years, we'll find that instead of one, two or three presentations related to aquatics, there will be hundreds. But we have a long way to go to get there.