Intelligencer Journal: Get into the swim of things with swim spas

A powerful new partner has joined the home and spa fitness-machine team, helping people shed pounds and develop sleek bodies while protecting joints from jarring, high-impact aerobics.

Depending on one's perspective, it resembles a giant bathtub, a petite swimming pool, a rectangular hot tub and/or a whirlpool bath. Technically, it's a counter-current swimming machine, akin to a treadmill in water.

Some refer to it as a swim spa. Others call it a flume. In any case, it's a small pool with a turn-on/ turn-off tide in which you can do a lot of swimming without actually going anywhere. A leading manufacturer of these new exercise creatures, called Endless Pools, is located just downstream of Lancaster in Aston.

Manheim Township residents Melanie Mills, 46, her 55-year-old brother, Ralph Mills, and their just-turned-80 mother, also Melanie Mills have an Endless Pool in their home. It was Ralph's idea. When he retired in 1998 from teaching, after 30 years at Lancaster city's King Elementary School, he decided to invest his nest egg in an Endless Pool rather than the stock market. He realized, with some prodding from his physician, that the needed to lose weight and shape up if he were to enjoy his retirement years. (Ralph still works; he's an auto travel counselor at the downtown branch of Lancaster's American Automobile Association.)

Sporting an "oh-so-stylish" turn-of-the century two-piece swimsuit, Ralph now spends daily time in the swimming pool. He turns on the propeller unit that creates a tide down the pool's center and he swims against it. Then he shuts off the current and lolls around on his back. He hasn't quite yet achieved a feat his maternal grandfather could perform-read newspaper while floating on his back...without getting the paper wet.

Ralph said that if the propeller is cranked up to full power "you could almost go white-water rafting." (Best to leave the newspaper on dry land at this point.)

Ralph began using his swimming pool in June 1999, about the same time he joined Weight Watchers. When he stepped on the Weight Watchers' scale for the first time, it balanced at 268 pounds. Ralph now weighs 218--in the homestretch to his 196-pound goal.

Equally important, the water exercise has been therapeutic for Ralph's physical problems. As a child, an illness or perhaps postvaccinal encephalitis, left his leg muscles impaired and affected his balance, he said. He wore braces until he was 12 and now uses a cane. It appears painful and difficult for Ralph to walk. More recently, he has developed arthritis in the ankles.

Eighty-year-old Melanie's physician has prescribed for her a range of exercises to perform in the swimming pool, to strengthen her muscles, ease her severe arthritis and decrease the swelling in her legs. She and her daughter often exercise together to music. Melanie said she's gained heightened flexibility as the result of her water routine.

Fitness experts often tout the benefits of water exercise. "Swimming uses almost every major muscle group," said Gail Parmer, a local fitness and wellness consultant. "Its major benefit is its no-impact on joints and muscles, due to water's buoyancy. Swimming helps anyone with orthopedic problems and is often recommended for rehabilitation.

The Endless Pool at the Manheim Township home of brother and sister Ralph and Melanie Mills and their mother, 80-year-old Melanie, was installed in the ground in an addition to the house.

The standard size of an Endless Pool is 8-feet wide, 15-feet long, and 42-inches deep. Water depth is 39 inches, the standard depth of a lap pool.

The Millses decided to install a larger one so Ralph could swim in place at the same time his sister and mother exercised. Customers wanting to do water aerobics often choose to have one part of the pool considerably deeper, up to 6 feet.

The Millses resemble the typical Endless Pools customer in that they live in a northern climate in which outdoor pools cannot be used year-round. They are also among the 50 percent of buyers who invest in a counter-current pool for therapeutic reasons, said Wackman.

They are atypical, however, in that they live on a limited income in a working-class neighborhood. The average Endless Pool owner is financially well-to-do, according to company spokesperson Maureen Evans.

The Endless Pool "is really like a large erector set," with steel panels that are bolted together, Wackman said. Assembly of the module is a snap, taking two handy people about two days, he said, adding that about 30 percent of customers install the pool on their own and above ground.

It's not quite so simple for folks like the Millses, who decided to add a room to their small house to accommodate the swimming pool, and to have it "built in" rather than above ground. The Millses experienced unanticipated difficulties because of Manheim Township zoning regulations concerning the backyard space that must exist between homes, they said.

They had to go back to the drawing board to design a room that would meet zoning regulations. The Millses thus advise people planning to add on house space in order to incorporate a pool to check with zoning officials first.

On the other hand, when the Millses compare their pool to their relatives' outdoor pools, which can only be used at certain times of the year, they believe they have made the best choice for their particular needs and wants.

Aquatic Fitness
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