Contrary to conventional wisdom, sometimes going against the current can be good for you -- downright healthy, in fact. Just ask owners of lap pools.
We've all seen those ads for them in the back of such publications as the New York Times Sunday Magazine or The New Yorker. Essentially, these small pools are "treadmills for swimmers," explained Chris Wackman, senior vice president of Endless Pools in Aston, Pa.
He said that since 1988, his company's business has grown by double digits. The increasing popularity of lap pools is a result, he said, "of people recognizing that water exercise is the best [because] it is non-impact exercise and water resistance is 11 times greater than air."
Many companies manufacture similar products, such as swim spas, which are a hybrid hot tub/pool in which people exercise against moving water created by a jet, Wackman explained.
His company's pools create a current 20 inches wide and 20 inches deep with a 16-inch propeller that is driven by a hydraulic motor. Some 5,000 gallons a minute travel through two grills. This creates a regenerative loop - an Endless Pool. The current's speed or resistance, he said, is adjustable from zero to 3 mph.
"For someone looking for the benefits of long-distance swimming, this would be a good choice," he added. Triathletes use this type of pool to train for Ironman events, Wackman said.
Endless Pools' costs about as much as a family sized car. Dimensions and depth can be customized. "The deep end can be up to 6 feet," he said.
Other options include fully in-ground, partially in-ground, or up on a floor designs. "Every piece [of the pool] will fit through a standard 30-inch-wide door," he noted, which is important so the pool can be installed in an existing space without the need to remodel or remove a wall.
People who invest in lap pools create a wide demographic -- "mid-30s to quite elderly," Wackman said. "People who are exercise-oriented, but not necessarily swimmers."
"Exercisers can run or walk in this pool against the current; or do water aerobics," he said. Hospitals and clinics use lap pools for the treatment of patients with disabilities such as MS, arthritis, osteoporosis, rheumatism, and other motion-limiting conditions as well as patients recovering from injuries or surgery.
Lap pools are relatively low-maintenance additions to the home, Wackman said. A retractable cover provides security by keeping children and animals out, as well as debris. If the pool is installed inside, the cover also keeps humidity out of the room.
As with any pool or spa, the pH and alkaline levels have to be maintained. Ordinary household bleach is used to sanitize the pool and the filtration system keeps it clean, Wackman said. The cover also confines the bleach's chlorine odor.
The pool's energy cost is highly variable depending on how warm customers prefer the water and room temperatures, he said. But he noted that heating the pool is the primary expense. "The hydraulic motor only runs while the pool is being used," Wackman said. So if the temperatures are kept at a realistic range and the pool area is well insulated, the energy cost may be only $60-$100 a month. However, that figure, Wackman stresses, is only a rough approximation and individual conditions may vary. Since the pool is, on average, the size of an SUV, it requires less energy to maintain than a large pool.
Endless Pools sells directly to the customer. The company does not install its pools. However, a handy person or "weekend warrior," said Wackman, would be able to install it themselves. He said some 30 or 40 percent of his customers install their own pools. For those less sure of themselves, customers can hire a pool contractor or use one of 200 Factory Trained Installers across the country.
Carl Baggetta, a financial analyst who lives in Niskayuna, once owned an outdoor pool. But he had so many trees on his lot that he found himself spending more time outside of the pool cleaning and maintaining it than inside enjoying a swim. And, of course, in the Northeast there is such a short season for outdoor swimming.
In the fall of 2000, after reading an ad for lap pools in a magazine, Baggetta decided to include one when he was having several additions built on his house. One room was especially designed for the pool, which was installed in the floor.
Although he wasn't a competitive swimmer in high school or college, Baggetta and his family did belong to a pool club when he was growing up. "We went to the club every day in the summer and I was on the swim team there," he recalled.
He and his wife own horses, so they have designed a multifaceted fitness program combining horseback riding, free-weight workouts at the gym and swimming. Until the ground freezes, signaling the end of horseback-riding season, they swim about once a week. But after the horses are in the barn until spring, the Baggettas swim on average two or three times a week. Baggetta is very enthusiastic about the benefits of his pool. "[Swimming] stretches the body, makes it fight back, and slows down the aging process," he said.
It stretches the vertebrae, especially after horseback riding, which compresses the spine, Baggetta said.
Weight lifting, too, compresses and bulks up the muscles; swimming does just the opposite. "Swimming lengthens everything," he said, "there is very little resistance on the joints." He also enjoys swimming for the cardiovascular workout.
Baggetta said he's also impressed by the pool in terms of energy efficiency and maintenance. "It comes with a timer, so you can set the filter and heater to run at the cheapest time [midnight to 4am]," he said. Of course, the more the pool is used the more filtration it will require, so the bill will vary.
The pool's retractable cover traps the humidity and because it uses bromine, there is no chlorine odor. "It's a very easy pool to maintain," said Baggetta. "It uses very few chemicals, just a couple of bromine tablets a week."
Baggetta chose to have an underwater mirror installed so he could check his stroke technique and body mechanics while he swims, much like observing his lifting technique in the wall mirrors at the gym. He also had two underwater lights installed so he wouldn't have to light up the room when he wanted to swim.
After a swim, Baggetta said, "I feel like I am still floating - mentally and physically. Gets all those endorphins going. I'm on top of the world for days."
Dr. Alan Miller of Delmar has owned his lap pool for four years and he pronounces his experiences "perfect." "It was one of the better things we've done as far as the house and ourselves," he said. "It's worked as well as we had hoped."
Although Miller had read about them for years, he felt the lap pool seemed "logical but improbable."
It wasn't until he'd actually seen one at a friend's house on Long Island that he became convinced of the pool's practicality. That is when he decided to buy one. Miller had the pool installed, not because he felt he wasn't up to it, but because it would have taken longer.
"The installation process is not all that complicated," he said. Miller's pool is on the floor in his finished basement. When it was installed, he had some customizing features done, such as steps up to the pool and hydrotherapy jets.
As a medical doctor, his prescription for health is very simple: "Everyone knows swimming is good for you," he said. It is especially good "for people who can't put a lot of weight on their limbs."
There is also the year-round use advantage. "It's an unusual day when we don't swim," he said. On average, he does the crawl for a sustained 20-minute workout. "We [he and his wife] haven't tired of it and even the grandchildren love it."
The Millers have their filtration system set up to run automatically four hours in every 24. For them, the pool requires minimal maintenance. He pours in a cup of Clorox every four or five days. He's added water to the pool, but has never changed it, which attests to efficiency of the filtration system. The Millers have an all-electric house, but to date, they haven't noticed a change in their electric bill since they had the pool installed.
Another important detail Miller mentioned -- there is no electric current poolside. This might be a reassuring thought for someone who has safety concerns. "All the switches at the pool are hydraulic," Miller noted.