Health Weekender: The good, the bad, and the 'P' in the pool

Consumer Reports News: May 29, 2009 05:36 PM

Swimming is my exercise of choice, which apparently puts me in good company—it’s the second most popular workout in the country. And you know it’s a great workout. Lap swimming is about as effective as jogging at burning calories, building strength, and provides a similar aerobic workout. And it’s easier on the hips and knees, helping those with joint problems work out longer and with less stress.

But lap swimming isn’t the only way to get a good water workout. Walking, running, or lifting weights in a pool is a different kind of workout than on land—and it can be safer too, especially for those who may be frail, overweight, pregnant, or with back or joint problems. One of my colleagues and fellow blogger was required to take a water aerobics class in college. She wasn’t excited about it at first, but says she thoroughly enjoyed it, and lost nearly ten pounds in one semester.

Like some exercise machines, water provides a natural form of resistance—roughly ten times greater than air—forcing you to work harder to move through it, which burns calories faster while building strength and aerobic fitness. And because water surrounds you, it provides resistance in any direction you move. Straight leg lifts on land, for example, tone the muscles in your front thigh, but the same exercise in water has the added benefit of strengthening the hamstring when you push your leg back down.

The ‘P’ in Pool

OK, so that’s the good news. Now for the bad news: your fellow swimmers may not be models of aquatic hygiene. A recent survey by the Water Quality and Health Council found that 47 percent of Americans admit to one or more behaviors that contribute to an unhealthy pool. Notably, one in five pee in the pool, and 35 percent skip the pre-swimming shower.

Swimming pool rules_ Hygiene might be lacking in part because 63 percent say they are unaware of the illnesses associated with swallowing, breathing, or having contact with contaminated pool water. Such illnesses—known as recreational water illnesses (RWIs) —have been on the rise over the last couple of decades according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RWIs can lead to diarrhea, respiratory illness, and ear and skin infections, and can be especially dangerous for children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

So how do you know if your pool is safe? The CDC recommends* you use your senses.

Look at the pool water. It should be clean and clear. For example, if there are stripes painted on the bottom of the pool, they should be clearly visible.

Feel the side of the pool. It should be smooth, not sticky or slippery.

Smell the pool. A well-maintained pool has little odor, but a strong chemical smell may be a sign of a problem.

Listen for the pool’s pumps and filtration system. Proper maintenance is key, and the machines make noise. You should hear them humming along.

If any of these signs give you pause, ask the pool staff about the safety of the pool. Are the chlorine and pH levels checked at least twice a day? Are they checked when the pool is at its most crowded? Is there trained staff there on weekends when use is heaviest? What kind of grade did the pool get on its last inspection?

You can also test the chlorine and pH levels yourself with home test kits available at hardware stores. The CDC has a how-to guide*.

Pool-hygiene dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t swim if you have diarrhea
  • Don’t swallow pool water, and generally try to keep it out of your mouth
  • Do shower before swimming
  • Do wash your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers
  • Do take children for regular bathroom breaks and check diapers frequently
  • Do change diapers in a bathroom rather than near the pool, and thoroughly clean the changing area

Finally, pool chemicals can worsen certain respiratory illnesses, including asthma and chronic bronchitis. If you have either of those conditions, be especially cautious about your time at the pool, and consider talking to your physician about the risks.

Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

For more on pool safety, see our Safety blog, and don’t forget the sunscreen when you’re at the pool.

Images: bobster855

*links to PDF

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Health News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more