Like soda shops and rumble seats, their popularity has fallen away over the years. Heated therapy pools — once standard in hospitals of the 1930s and 40s — declined in use after the advent of the polio vaccine in 1955, until today they are little more than a medical afterthought.
 
That practice may be about to change, however, as Bruce Becker and Kasee Hildenbrand lead the way in establishing the nation’s first laboratory for aquatics and sports medicine at the WSU Pullman campus.
 
Temporarily located in Bohler Gym, the National Aquatics & Sports Medicine Institute hopes to blaze a trail in aquatic activity research and its effects on health maintenance and recovery. It also will provide research opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students as well as support for athletes and students in general.
 
Bruce Becker, left, and Kasee Hildenbrand work with student Wes McDaniel, a senior in movement studies who is taking part in a warm water study. (Photo by Becky Phillips)
 
Healing power
As a physician and research professor in the College of Education, Becker has devoted his career to the study of rehabilitation medicine — focusing on the mechanics of recovery and healing. He was first impressed with the power of water therapy in the early 1980s while working with an exercise physiologist in Spokane. Becker was astonished to see how quickly athletes recovered when exercising in a pool and the level of activity they could endure without injury.
 
It wasn’t long before Becker began using water to rehabilitate his own patients — though little had been published in the field since the 40s. By 2004, he launched his own research proposal to the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), which funded an initial project comparing the benefits of aquatic aerobics versus land-based aerobics.
 
The study took place at WSU Pullman, where Becker teamed up with Hildenbrand, assistant professor in the College of Education. Between 2005 and 2007, the project surveyed 100 students — comparing aerobic capacity, body fat, respiratory and cardiovascular function.
 
Pilot data from the study was compelling — allowing Beckerto facilitate a meeting between the college and NSPF officials in fall 2007. A relationship was established, with NSPF agreeing to fund the program at $1 million allocated over five years. The result was the founding of the institute.
 
Becker said they are hoping to confirm permanent housing for the institute sometime this fall.
 
“The space being looked at will require extensive remodeling and new equipment,” he said. “It will have office space, hot tubs, physical monitoring equipment and a pool with current and a treadmill.”
In the meantime, he and Hildenbrand are investigating the physiological effects of hot tubs.
 
“We are trying to study the autonomic nervous system — the ‘motherboard’ of the body,” Becker said. “We use biomonitoring equipment to look at respiratory and cardiovascular systems, digestion, mental relaxation, focus, memory, etc.” He said physiological changes associated with aquatic activity may have major positive impacts on health conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and obesity.
 
Basketball fans
 
The aquatic exercise program already has won over the men’s basketball team. David Lang, director of strength conditioning in the athletics department, said he tried it last fall as a form of non-impact anaerobic conditioning for the team.
 
“The guys wore flotation belts and were submerged up to their necks in Smith Gym pool doing intense sprint workouts. The water increases pressure on the thorax and raises the heart rate more than normal — leading to a greater training effect with less exercise,” he said.
 
By strengthening the respiratory muscles, Becker said, you can enhance the performance of the extremities. When the respiratory muscles start to fatigue, the body switches to taking oxygen from the leg muscles — causing a sudden drop in energy and ability, he said.
 
“It really did help,” said Lang. “It’s a great way to do an anaerobic workout without pounding on their ankles, knees and hips.” He plans to continue the program with this year’s basketball team. The department also will use an underwater treadmill for post-injury and post-surgical cases.