Our human attraction to water is well documented, observes Lauren Stack, but none of us are automatically comfortable around it, nor do we often learn to swim without access to lessons. That's a pair of issues this article addresses while pointing toward a compelling aquatic future.
By Lauren Stack
Water is both remarkable and omnipresent. It makes up our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams. It’s a huge proportion of our bodies. It’s also the substance watershape designers and builders of every stripe work with as their chosen artistic medium.
But it’s not just people in the watershaping business who are seriously into water: Indeed, everyone on the planet is drawn to water in all of its various forms. This explains the allure of coastal cities and waterfront properties as well as pools, ponds, fountains and other waterfeatures.
Yet it’s also true that many people are fearful around water – a discomfort often attributed to the fact that they never learned how to swim. The gulf between those who see water as affirming and life-giving and those who see it as ominous and life-threatening is one of the issues we’ll explore in this article.
We know, of course, that the life-giving/life-threatening duality represents extremes and that many people exist somewhere in the vast middle ground between those limits. But by recognizing the extremes, we can more readily evaluate ways to reduce the gap, encourage comfort around water in a broader population and incline more people to think positively about watershapes – and even the prospect of owning one.
In other words, this is all about the future of watershaping.
So here we are: On the side of wonderment, people are doing incredible things in and around water. We love wake-boarding, sailing, kayaking and water skiing and constantly seem to be invent new and even more extreme water sports that add amazing levels of exhilaration to the time we spend in or on the water. There are also recreational users and people who swim or exercise in the water to maintain good levels of fitness – not to mention watershapers and other professionals who love working with water for a living.
And now we know that most people on the planet “think blue,” recognizing the relationship between water and life on earth and the fact that, without water, there is no life. More than 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water. And as suggested above, more than 80 percent of the world’s human population lives within an hour’s drive of an ocean, lake or river because of what water brings to their lives. And then there are the half-billion people – including watershapers – who owe their livelihoods to this nearly omnipresent substance.
All of this has been documented in the book by Wallace J. Nichols – Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Back Bay Books, 2014). In this trailblazing text, Nichols discusses the physical effects of water on our bodies, from the fact that we need it for cell growth, reproduction and survival; to regulate body temperature; to protect the brain from the jolts and shocks of simply moving through life; and to deliver oxygen to our blood, digest food and clear away waste.
Water also plays essential roles in cardiovascular and pulmonary health, helps regulate blood pressure and maintains the function of our circulation systems. It’s a healer, too, as any active person will tell you after retiring to a hot shower or hot tub following a hard day of work or play. It can help in recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and hydrotherapy has long proved useful in restoring physical function after other traumatic injuries. Indeed, many people who can’t work out or rehabilitate anywhere else can get in the water and enjoy the benefits of buoyancy.
When we are immersed, wonderful things happen – and they don’t all involve exercise. According to Dr. Bruce Becker, who wrote a fantastic article for WaterShapes a few years back (click here), simple immersion in water provides anxiety relief and mental relaxation; improves mood and memory; and offers a mind-clearing refuge in which problem-solving can more readily occur.
Dr. Kent Myers is another believer in the power of water. He had a patient who was in the early stages of dementia. No medications helped, and the man was slipping away to the point where he couldn’t follow directions during physical therapy and began to lose the power of speech.
Dr. Myers turned to aquatic therapy, and his patient took to it right away. Not only was he able to follow instructions during his first visit to the therapy pool, but he also was able to put his head under water and count to 15 before pulling up. Eventually, he resumed communication with his daughters and smiled again. This doesn’t happen in every case, of course, but it boosted this particular patient’s quality of life beyond anyone’s expectations.
SETTING THE SCENE
The good news is that the desire to know how to swim is aspirational, something non-participants crave. And age doesn’t seem to matter: Indeed, swimming is the only form of exercise that rates in the top five among all but one surveyed age group – a true cradle-to-grave activity.
But it’s important to note that, while most everyone says they would like to swim, less than four percent of those surveyed in 2016 and ’17 actually do swim on a regular basis. (This is not unlike winter sports, where lots of people like the idea of skiing, but few actually take to the slopes and ski.)
What keeps all those people out of the water? Fear is one substantial factor: It’s no secret that people drown – as many as ten people every day, including those aged 14 or under – or that drowning is the leading cause of death of children from one to four years old. It’s a silent killer and sometimes happens in just seconds.
The tragedy that befell champion skier Bode Miller is a case in point: His 19-month-old daughter was as fearless around water as her dad is on skis. In the Miller’s pool, she wore water wings and was always supervised. The day she died, however, she slipped out of a neighbor’s house and confidently jumped into their pool – no water wings, no arms waiting to catch her.
In addition to offering lessons in the importance of adult supervision and of avoiding reliance on flotation devices in the absence of that supervision, this sort of story explains why water scares those who aren’t comfortable in and around it.
Such fears are particularly prevalent in minority communities: African-American children, for example, are six times more likely to drown than other children in their age ranges, and the phobia carries into adulthood. It’s also been reported that, while 32 percent of white adults can’t swim, fully 44 percent of Hispanic adults are non-swimmers – as are 63 percent of African-Americans.
This all turns on a basic point: It’s clear that learning to swim is desirable and that teaching more children of all ethnicities how to do it will break the non-swimmer cycle, encourage swimming education among generations to come and, most important, increase comfort and reduce fear around water.
TURNING THE CORNER
Not to restate the obvious, but for more reasons than we can count, making certain children learn to swim – the younger the better – is of paramount importance. Statistics indicate that formal swimming lessons reduce the risk of drowning among children by 88 percent. That’s astounding when you learn that infant car seats, properly used, reduce the chance of toddler fatalities by just 54 percent.
The age of five is the magic level: If children learn to swim by that age, they’ll be capable swimmers for life and are far likelier to become water-lovers as well. These folks will join health clubs with pools; they’ll want to vacation near water; they’re likelier to swim for fitness and pursue water sports. Best of all, they become twice as likely to buy a home with a pool or to have one built.
Many of these water lovers and potential watershape buyers are the children or grandchildren of current industry clients; the next generation of lifeguards; and more likely employees of water-oriented businesses. They also become prime prospects and advocates for water-oriented projects, including public pools, water-oriented recreation centers, public fountains and waterparks as well as residential pools, spas, fountains, ponds and other waterfeatures.
And watershapers aren’t alone in recognizing all of this: The National Marine Manufacturers Association – the folks who make boats of every description – place solid emphasis on the importance of knowing how to swim because boats are perceived as risky and they know that quelling fears of participation are the life’s blood of their businesses. (They’ve even hired Wallace J. Nichols of Blue Mind fame as a media spokesperson.)
When it comes to swimming and knowledge of swimming, boats shouldn’t be seen as competition by watershapers because both endeavors require active participation in swimming education as a prime industry function. On that level, our main competition isn’t in the discretionary dollar categories of recreational vehicles or boats or any other high-end product category: Instead, the competition is inactivity.
That’s what it really boils down to these days: Inactivity is a global pandemic more deadly than smoking or obesity, and it drives up health care costs across the board while, among children, it even hurts academic performance. And a huge portion of the U.S. population is physically inactive, including a large number who, when surveyed, indicated participation in none of 105 listed physical activities – not even walking. And that number includes 25 to 28 percent of the population, meaning 80 to 90 million people!
Sadly, more and more children are now classified as inactive – a change in play preferences driven by technology and time spent staring at computers, tablets, phones and televisions. Two factors have exaggerated the problem: The No Child left Behind Act of 2001 and the Great Recession 2008 and ’09 led to a focus on core studies that saw reductions in time devoted to recess, physical education and team sports. At this point, 48 percent of high schools have completely eliminated physical education from the curriculum.
One huge antidote for the inactivity pandemic is swimming, because there isn’t a child anywhere who doesn’t enjoy being active in water!
Research indicates that physical activity at school is a precursor to physical activity away from school. Indeed, kids in school-based physical education programs are two or three times more likely to be physically active after the bell rings to end the school day.
The upshot of all this is another research observation: If you don’t do sports, you don’t watch or have any real interest in sports. In other words, if a child isn’t playing t-ball early on, he or she is less likely to have any interest in baseball as an adult. If you’re not a fan as a toddler, you’re unlikely ever to be a fan – news that’s rattling the sports word, and for good reason.
Another upshot of inactivity is that children are in bad shape. In a recent global study, U.S. kids ranked 47th out of 50 countries in overall fitness, which might explain why 75 percent of U.S. teenagers are unprepared not only for military service, but also for any sort of employment that requires sustained physical exertion. (Think construction jobs, for example, in which only three percent of surveyed young Americans expressed any interest.)
One possible way out of this disturbing trend is to introduce kids to a physical activity they universally enjoy – that is, playing in water – and combining that exposure with education in basic swimming skills that will make them safer around water through their lifetimes while also helping establish a foundation of physical activity that might stick with them for life.
This is why we at the National Swimming Pool Foundation (Colorado Springs, Colo.) place so much emphasis on learn-to-swim programs and on finding partners whose interests align with ours – including the above-mentioned National Marine Manufacturers Association as well as the YMCA, the YWCA, American Red Cross, USA Swimming and more.
It’s also why we work with states and cities and any other programs we can find that aim at creating new swimmers, no matter their ages. One effort NSPF supports, for instance, is passage of the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act, which is billed as a movement for a fit and healthy America. This legislative package is working its way through the U.S. Congress and will allow Americans to use their pre-tax medical savings accounts to cover health-club memberships, swimming lessons and other investments in better health and fitness.
It’s also important to follow and support studies aimed at figuring out the mindsets of watershaping’s current client base, including Baby Boomers as well as Millennials. This emcompasses grandparents who can benefit from in-pool exercise while also entertaining and engaging their grandchildren as well as younger prospects who grew up with a water orientation they want to continue on that path into their adult lives.
The drivers and interests of these two demographic groups may seem radically diverse – and to a large extent they are. But when it comes to water, there’s common ground to be explored and used to sustain an existing interest in water recreation well into the future. And it may even make it possible to figure out ways to encourage Millennials to become candidates for employment in water-oriented firms.
There are challenges ahead, obviously, but there is also great news here because the desire to be around water is ingrained in us as people. In addition, most people see the ability to swim as a positive asset, something they associate with fitness, health, low-impact exercise, wellness and hydrotherapy – all concepts they link directly to attractive lifestyles, happy social environments, inclusive community recreation and more.
If we communicate these positives effectively, we can educate and inspire; build and extend the passionate desire to be around water; demonstrate that technology and water are closely linked in modern watershapes; and be seen as leaders in figuring out ways to spread the word about the importance of learning to swim.
If we bring more people to water – by donating time and money, for instance, or by giving swim-education vouchers to clients with young children, by sponsoring swim teams or lifeguard-training programs, by supporting physical education programs in elementary and high schools, by contacting representatives about the PHIT Act and more – we can get out ahead and ensure involvement with future generations of water-aware, water-engaged and water-loving people.
May 2018 was “Get America Moving” month. Maybe what we need now is a month dedicated to getting people into the water, safely and for a lifetime. It could make quite a difference – not just for our country and society, but also for watershaping and its prosperous future!