Swim spas provide great motivation for aquatic exercise

Scott Webb Headshot

5 H 209 A QcopyExercise in a pool. It used to mean swimming laps, but for the homeowner with a 20- or even a 30-foot pool, lap swimming is mostly turns. And while that can get tiring (which is, after all the point of a workout) it's not very satisfying.

Manufacturers now offer a variety of ways to achieve the effect of a swimming workout in a small volume of water. All of these different options have their appeal; some are more convenient, less expensive or more like the real thing.

They all use water to resist and support the body, but the sensation of swimming against a spa jet, for instance, is wholly different than swimming against a resistance current generated by a propeller or a paddle wheel.

And the packaging is different, too. Some vessels can be used for multiple purposes; others are more specialized. You can purpose-build an 8-by-16-foot pool with its own dedicated water flow mechanism, or just wheel a current generator up to the side of an existing pool, stroke against the stream, and wheel it back into the equipment room when you're done.

The products vary greatly, and for that reason, in this product category, it's more important than ever for the consumer (or the dealer contemplating adding an exercise pool or spa to a lineup) to experience the activity firsthand.

As David Biles, COO, Endless Pools, Aston, Pa., says, "The point is that there are a lot of different ways to exercise in a pool, and they really are different. All you have to do is try it, and then you'll know what works for you."

Keeping Current

The most popular waterborne exercise has always been swimming, and the products in this category attempt to replicate that activity in a limited space, either a large spa or a small pool.

Some companies offer a spa, with all its inherent social and therapeutic applications, that doubles as an exercise pool. Others hang their hats on a small pool that is not as versatile in its application as the swim spa, but as a specialist, offers an experience that more closely mirrors a swimming lane in a lap pool.

A key difference between the two is that most swim spas generate current using spa jets, while exercise pools use current generators, which provide a smoother, broader flow of water. The varying characteristics of these products must be matched to the taste of the consumer.

A number of hot tub manufacturers have entered the swim spa market by altering their traditional products to enable a swimming experience. This redesigned acrylic spa includes space for a prone swimmer to exercise, while still accommodating spa bathers - not necessarily at the same time.

These products typically generate the swimming resistance using the same spa jet technology that is quite familiar to consumers. With enough horsepower supplied from the spa pump and valving to direct flow, a strong counter-current can be generated for the swimmer.

This can be engineered with separate, dedicated pumps, single or multiple nozzles and at varying flow rates up to 1,000 gallons per minute or more.

It's a wide-open field of manufacturers, however, with considerable crossover. Diamond Spas, of Broomfield, Colo., for instance, makes a high-end swim spa that incorporates the type of smooth current generator often used in exercise pools; it is controlled using the same variable frequency drive technology recently introduced to the pool pump industry.

"It is a propeller-driven water flow that is fully programmable and adjustable," notes Caleb Salazar, spa sales. "The swim system is a match up of Diamond Spas and Current Systems [of Camarillo, Calif.]."

Endless Pools also uses a propeller to create a smooth counter-current, focusing on the experience of the swimmer to differentiate its product.

"The way you create the swimming current is very important," says Biles. "Doing it with high-pressure water, such as a spa jet, can kind of hold you in place but it feels like you have fire hoses aimed at you.

"You need a moving column of water, and we create it through a proprietary propeller-based system that also has turning vanes that give you something that is wider than your body and deeper than your stroke. It's a large amount of water moving past your body at a relatively low pressure."

SwimEx is another company that emphasizes current generation, but its exercise pools employ a mechanism that, like a paddlewheel on a riverboat, draws water from the main swim area near the floor of the pool and then pushes it through a 6-foot-wide opening.

"The water moves in a big, circular motion," says Suzanne Marchetti, vice president of sales for the Fall River, Mass., company. "It's an actual paddlewheel that's as wide as the pool, and the way that we designed the grating system, there's no air that enters into the system, so you're moving just water, and it's a very smooth, even flow. And because you're not introducing air into the system, there's no turbulence."

Marchetti emphasizes the width of the current as an important aspect of replicating the swimming experience. "It's even across the width of the pool," she says, "you don't have to worry about staying within the narrow confines of a resistance area."

Drop-In Swimming

As the product has evolved, portable current generators have come on the market that allow the user to convert an existing body of water to an exercise pool. These come with varying degrees of permanence.

Endless Pools makes the Fastlane, a propeller-driven current unit that attaches to the deck like a pool ladder and is held in place by a deck plate bolted to the pool deck. "It's a retrofit product," says Biles, "so if you have an in-ground pool, you can bolt it to your deck and drop it into your pool and swim."

Even more portable is the BaduStream Over-the-Wall Treadmill from Speck Pumps, Jacksonville, Fla. It hangs over the edge of the pool and creates a 5,000-gallons-per-minute counter-current from a single jet nozzle, and is installed with relatively little cost and effort.

These machines use a hydraulic pump to generate the water flow, keeping the dangerous electric power source away from the water.

And finally, for the ultimate in current generator portability, Master Spas, Fort Wayne, Ind., makes the ExerSwim, which is battery-powered and can be charged up using a standard 15-amp, 110-volt outlet, wheeled up to the pool's edge and placed in the water to generate a counter-current.

A Practical Product

These products have resulted from a merging of the fitness and pool markets. A swim spa or an exercise pool is simply a waterborne fitness center that fits in a limited space.

The resistive current is the key, and each manufacturer is delivering that resistive current in a different way, looking to find favor with consumers looking for the practical benefit of exercise.

There is still a great deal of innovation in this product category as manufacturers try to find the right combination of unit price, versatility and quality of exercise experience.

"Is the industry honing in on something?" Biles says, "I don't know. Companies are all trying to position products as an exercise apparatus that can do more than that."

Senior Workout

Although swimming remains the predominant aquatic exercise, exercise pools and swim spas cater to those wishing to workout in other ways. The market depends on the consumer.

"When someone's a swimmer," says David Biles, COO, Endless Pools, Aston, Pa., "they know what they want. But when you're talking to someone who's had a hip replacement or needs cold water movement, now you're getting into more nuanced ideas."

Indeed, the market for machines that give an aging population a gentle form of exercise is growing, and will continue to grow for the next 20 years.

The first of the baby boomers turned 60 in 2006. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates this group (those born between 1946 and 1964) to be 78.2 million strong. This expanding group of seniors includes a significant number of individuals who are looking for a form of exercise that supports the body, takes the weight off joints and yet still offers a means of raising the heart rate - this describes water workout equipment perfectly.

"It's a versatile piece of equipment," says Suzanne Marchetti, vice president of sales, SwimEx, Fall River, Mass., "in that you can walk, swim, run and do aerobic exercise. We have a lot of people who have a disability, or, for rehabilitation purposes, are looking to put these units in their homes as well. A 12-by-20-foot area is about all you need."


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