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Bethesda officials anticipate new pool will be a huge boost for local residents

The new warm-water therapy pool that opened recently at Bethesda Wellness Center. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Lynn Slagter had long been bothered with pain across her lower back.

Nothing really relieved it until she started using the underwater treadmill at the Club Bethesda therapy pool last month.

The exercise in the warm, 90-degree water of the pool made a big difference. "I can't say enough good about it," said Slagter as she worked out on the treadmill on a recent morning. "I love it here."

The warm-water therapy pool, which opened in August, is part of a $6 million, three-year investment by Bethesda Health and Housing to enhance the health of the community's older adults.

It is among the key pieces in a brand-new wellness center that opened a year ago next to the Pleasant View skilled nursing facility on East Willmar Avenue.

Membership in the wellness center has been thriving, said Melissa Wentzel, director of Club Bethesda. As of last week, there were 274 members, with nearly 40 new memberships during September alone, she said. "We are constantly signing up new people."

Bethesda officials anticipate the new pool will be an even bigger boost to the wellness center and its health and fitness programs.

"It's not going to be for everybody but there's a lot of people that I think would benefit," said Dennis Eickhoff, rehabilitation director at Bethesda.

Until now, there have been few if any formal pool therapy programs in the region.

For people who have arthritis pain or difficulty with weight-bearing activity, water exercise is an alternative that can help them increase their fitness, improve their strength and balance, manage symptoms and avoid backsliding, Eickhoff said.

"You find improved mobility and just generalized decreased pain," he said.

Plus, the warmth of the tropic-like water "feels really, really good," he said.

Arthritis and lack of physical activity often go hand in hand, Eickhoff noted. "It's kind of like a vicious cycle. If it hurts, they don't do it."

Water exercise has been found to be effective for a number of other chronic conditions too, such as fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain, Eickhoff said. It also can help people recover from fractures or rehabilitate after experiencing a stroke.

A couple of Bethesda's physical therapists are currently undergoing training in pool therapy. For now, Bethesda is focused on offering the service to outpatients and marketing it to local physicians, but plans to eventually expand its pool therapy programming to both long-term care residents and short-term rehabilitation clients.

"It's really new but our outpatient numbers are quickly growing," Eickhoff said. "It's been going very well."

Like the rest of the wellness center, the pool was designed with older adults in mind. It's handicapped-accessible, with a wheelchair ramp.

For amenities, it boasts a curving wall of windows that faces south, letting in lots of natural light. It has changing areas and locker rooms.

Just under 5 feet at the deepest end, with a capacity of 98 swimmers, it's large enough for lap swimming but its main use is therapeutic -- whether for solo exercisers who want to use the underwater treadmill or group sessions of water aerobics.

"We're really targeting the senior population so we want to design our programs and our therapy for that population," Eickhoff said.

Classes in water aerobics are beginning to catch on, said Josh Dahlke, manager of Club Bethesda.

"Some days we have two people in a class. Other days there's 10," he said.

Besides the therapy pool, the wellness center has a fitness center with state-of-the-art exercise equipment engineered specifically for older adults. Fitness programs can be set up with the help of the staff and individualized with a smart card that keeps track of each exercise session.

One of the oldest clients Dahlke has worked with so far is 97. The response from the local senior community has been "better than expected," he said. "Everybody's telling their friends."

Other services range from seated-chair exercise to yoga to nutritional counseling.

Wentzel said it's the goal of the wellness center to be responsive to community needs. "We can incorporate different classes. We're always open to new things," she said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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