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Cougars who swim

Tue., Oct. 7, 2008

WSU men’s basketball players hitting the hot tubs as part of new aquatics program to show benefits of water training

PULLMAN – Probably the men’s basketball team would have made it to the Sweet 16 anyway. But there are researchers at Washington State University who like to think that training like ducks helped boost the Cougars to their greatest success in more than 60 years.

That’s ducks, as in water-loving birds. Not Ducks, like WSU’s Pac-10 rivals in Eugene, Ore.

Backed by $1 million from a swimming pool industry group, WSU has started a National Aquatics and Sports Medicine Institute that’s setting out to prove the benefits of water for athletes and for people with chronic health issues, like heart problems.

There’s no evidence behind those signs posted over hot tubs in hotels and other public places – the ones warning that people with cardiac diseases should stay out of the water, said Kasee Hildenbrand, director of the athletic training education at WSU’s College of Education.

“They just assume it’s bad,” she said.

Hildenbrand and Dr. Bruce Becker, a physician who is the institute’s director, believe that the opposite is true, and that sitting deep in water might also help people with diabetes and asthma. They’re hoping to conduct a study with 170 asthmatics starting in spring.

From tests involving a variety of adults, they’ve noted beneficial changes in heart rhythms from sitting in hot tubs set at 88, 98 and 102 degrees. They suspect it’s caused not by temperature, but by water pressure.

However, another common warning on hot-tub signs is worth heeding, Hildenbrand said. Pregnant women really should stay out of hot water because it causes the body temperature to rise and keep rising for about six minutes after stepping out of the spa. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pregnant women should consult a doctor first, but is silent on the matter of whether heart patients should take precautions.)

In addition, the researchers want to provide evidence that athletes other than swimmers benefit from deep-water exercises, such as running while suspended from flotation devices. Researchers and trainers want to keep the athletes upright, as when they’re working out on land.

Exercising while neck-deep in water “almost feels like you’ve got an elephant on your chest,” said David Lang, WSU director of strength and conditioning for basketball and some other sports.

That’s a good thing, Lang said. It translates to more endurance, which “certainly helped to carry us deeper into the (basketball) season.”

And athletes in the water are less likely to get the kind of stress-related injuries that can be caused by pounding up and down a basketball court, Lang said. That makes it a good “rest and recovery” exercise when it’s time for a break from the court.

Researchers didn’t collect data last year, the first in which the basketball players hit the pool. But Hildenbrand said players told her they felt the difference in their lungs and legs, and coach Tony Bennett was convinced of the benefit. This year’s team was scheduled to have its first pool session last Friday, and the women’s team is likely to join the program this year.

Hildenbrand knows that some people will be skeptical of the institute’s research because it’s funded by the National Swimming Pool Foundation, whose members could profit from any news that spurs sales of pools and spas. Manufacturers also donated the three hot tubs used in the research.

Conclusive proof of water’s health effects would quell any skepticism. So might a Cougar team that is consistently counted among basketball’s elite.

“I think Dr. Becker’s dream is for Tony Bennett to say that they made it there because of being in the aquatics,” Hildenbrand said.

Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or

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