Healthy Horizons: A Lost Generation

By the time you finish reading this article, a few more Americans will have moved into their senior years. In fact, over the next 10 years, the 60-to- 64 population will increase by 58 percent - and for the first time ever, the older population will soon outnumber the younger population. So why aren't you seeing more of these older adults in your club?

In past issues of Club Industry, we discussed why older adults are an important market and how to cater to this growing group. This time, we'll tell you about the unlikely competitors that are drawing older adults away from traditional fitness clubs - and what you can do about it.

Your newest competitor may not be that slick fitness facility down the block. Hospitals, senior centers, universities, clubs specializing in the deconditioned, and even park and recreation departments are getting in on the act and offering fitness programs to older adults. The reason? Senior centers, hospitals, universities and parks that show an interest in seniors' quality of life enjoy community goodwill in addition to increased income - while clubs that specialize in deconditioned adults understand that their unique positioning will help them stand out in the marketplace.

What do these programs have that make them popular with sen-iors? For one thing, they offer a thong-free, welcoming atmosphere where older adults can get fit with their peers. Impor-tant elements of this atmosphere include:

* Appropriate equipment. Most strength equipment offers 10-pound increments, which can be too much for older adults.

* Appropriate music. "They don't have to play Glen Miller, but they do have to be aware of the music mix," advises Kay van Norman, founder of SENioRS Unlimited in Bozeman, Mont., a consulting firm specializing in exercise and wellness programming for older adults.

* No mirrors. "My dad always tells me he feels great until he walks by a mirror," says Glenn Colarossi, president of AgeFit in Stamford, Conn., which manages 14 assisted and independent living facilities for the aged. "Older adults are not particularly interested in seeing themselves."

Qualified instructors are another reason older adults are drawn to alternative fitness facilities. Programs catering to older adults boast staff who are trained not only in basic fitness, but also in the biology of aging and in how to deal with such issues as incontinence, alcoholism and depression. In addition, facilities that specialize in the deconditioned are often owned by nurses and other medical practitioners, which boosts credibility.

"In the case of the specialized clubs, you're talking about that personalized service - the removal of the fear of injury because you'll have someone who's watching over what you're doing," says van Norman. And the availability of a highly trained medical staff makes hospital-based programs attractive to this market.

Finally, older adults are eschewing fitness clubs because they feel they don't belong. "A reason clubs are at a disadvantage right now is the attitude that's reflected in the marketing," says van Norman. "If you look at the typical fitness club ad, it in no way speaks to older adults or people who are out of shape." As an example, she cites an ad that featured an obese woman on the beach with the caption, "Are you ready for swimsuit season?"

"That's the prevailing attitude of a lot of fitness clubs: Come here to avoid being this fat, horrible thing," says van Norman. "Older adults would look at that and think, 'Gee, they sure don't want me.' The image that fitness clubs are for the body-beautiful set puts fitness clubs at a disadvantage."

To create advertising that attracts older adults, clubs have to realize that it isn't ripped abs that this market is after, but independence, quality of life and the social experience. "Seniors are more interested in the quality of their lives than losing a lot of weight or running marathons," says Ronda Gates, who teaches and creates programs for the parks and recreation department as the owner of LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates in Lake Oswego, Ore.

"Exercise and eating healthfully allow people to get to their 70s, 80s and 90s," she continues. "But once they get there, they're pretty much set in their patterns, and what improves the quality of their lives and what they look for is relationships, support and the knowledge that they're making a contribution." These elements should be worked into any advertising targeted to the older adult market.

By now you may be wondering why we haven't mentioned the most obvious competitors in the race for the senior market: assisted living facilities and retirement homes. Says van Norman, "I don't think assisted living facilities compete at all with fitness clubs. It's a completely different situation where you have people living on-site. Regardless of what wonderful fitness plans the club has to offer, it's unlikely that residents would go off-site to take those classes."

In addition, many retirement housing facilities, assisted living facilities and so on don't offer fitness programs - or competition to the club industry - because they don't have the time, the room or the money to install equipment and train staff, according to van Norman. "They know that they need it, but what happens is that the activity director ends up being the one who has to manage it," she says. "Without the proper training and resources, it's just one more thing on their plate - and they're totally overworked anyway."

However, this doesn't mean that fitness clubs have a clear field with the retirement housing market. Even though their facilities don't offer fitness programs, residents may not be able to join your club due to transportation troubles or other reasons.

The solution: Join forces with senior housing facilities - and boost your bottom line in the process. "Now is the time to do it!" says Jan Montague of Montague, Eippert and Associates Highland Heights, Ky., which designs, develops and implements wellness programming, models and philosophies for the retirement housing industry. "Everyone is moving to collaboration and shared risk. The entry point right now needs to be changing culture; we have a whole group of people living in assisted and independent living, and physical fitness is not part of their culture."

Clubs have several options when it comes to collaborating with senior housing facilities. One idea is to offer to run a program at their facility. This doesn't mean that you can just send your least-busy trainer over and hope for the best, however. "Very few trainers have the necessary education background and experience," says Montague. To handle the myriad of chronic conditions they're sure to encounter, she suggests that trainers need to study pharmacology and the biology of aging in addition to holding a degree in exercise science.

Another way to align yourself with retirement facilities is to offer their members lower rates to use your club during certain (slow) hours. In this case, the club or the housing facility must provide transportation.

Don't let the additional costs of training or transportation scare you away from approaching retirement facilities. "There are grants available with area agencies on aging for offering wellness programs at senior centers," suggests Montague. "Senior centers going after grants would have to demonstrate who would be able to provide that service. They'd just write it into the grant that services will be provided by XYZ Fitness." If you can convince your local senior housing facility to apply for a fitness grant, you'll be first in line when it comes time to develop and implement a program.

Joining up with housing facilities is more than a way to attract older adults - it's a way to entice younger members. "If clubs can develop the program, not only is it reaching the older market and collecting a management fee," says Colarossi, "but the children of the people who are staying at these homes visit and see that a local club is providing the services - and that's a marketing avenue for reaching the children as well."

With the shift to an older marketplace and new competitors taking a bite out of fitness clubs' bottom lines, it's important to remember one key thing: "Fifty-five percent of discretionary spending and 80 percent of the personal wealth are in the hands of the aging market," says Colin Milner, COO of the Keiser Institute on Aging. "With this said it makes no sense that with such a lucrative market, only 5 percent of the marketing dollar in the U.S. is spent on this market. As a matter of fact, this market last year spent more over the Internet than all other markets combined - not what you would have expected to hear, is it?"

Science, Studies and Senior fitness

New studies on everything from exercise to injury make a strong argument for older adults to get active. This sampling of research provides a quick overview of how the medical community is bringing attention to senior health and fitness.

If your club doesn't offer programs for seniors, these studies may give you the incentive to get started. And if your club does offer these programs, the following reports could help you make improvements.

The Physician and Sportsmedicine, a medical journal, dedicated an entire issue to exercise for older adults. Dr. Thomas L. Schwenk of the University of Mich-igan Medical Center, the editor of the special issue, noted that age is no excuse for not exercising. He pointed out that while inactivity may cause a decline in health, it is never too late to reverse the process.

Unfortunately, since advertising and other forms of media often associate exercise with slender, young people, seniors incorrectly assume that they are too old to get active. Therefore, they need encouragement to start exercising, the issue reported.

After years of inactivity, some seniors may think that exercise can harm them. However, as the journal pointed out, low levels of exertion carry minimal risk, so even deconditioned seniors can get activie - as long as they start slowly. (Just keep in mind that for strength training, high intensity is required for results.) And once they get started, variety, working out with others and rewards for achieving goals will help them stick with their programs.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society claimed that positive images and feedback about aging can benefit older adults. In experiments conducted at Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, two groups of seniors played a video game that featured subliminal messages that flashed at subconscious speed. The first group received messages such as "wise" and "astute," while the other group received words like "senile" and "dependent." Afterwards, the group exposed to the positive words walked with a steadier, livelier gait.

This study demonstrates the power of positive self-image. When working with older adults, make sure you build their self-confidence as they build their bodies. Keep the feedback positive and avoid the negative stereotypes that center on aging.

Seniors are falling and getting hurt more often, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from Finland found that the number of falls among Finns rose from 5,622 in 1970 to 21,574 in 1995, while the rate of falls went from 494 per 100,000 people to 1,398.

According to experts, these numbers are most likely similar for other developed countries - including the United States. That means older adults in this country are falling and getting hurt with greater frequency.

Although researchers couldn't pinpoint the exact cause of the higher rate of falling, they did note that dwindling muscle strength could be one of the problems. They went on to note that exercise improves strength and balance, and, therefore, would help to prevent falls. Just another reason for clubs to give serious consideration to exercise programs for older adults.

New research indicates that inactivity is costing the U.S. health care system billions of dollars. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise estimated that a lack of exercise added up to a national health care bill of $24.3 billion. Meanwhile, the Alliance of Aging Research found that the United States spends $26 billion for health care as older Americans lose the ability to live independently.

Although exercise won't eliminate all of the costs associated with senior health care, it certainly can cut part of the expense. By showing older adults how to get into better shape, clubs can help them maintain their independence - while whittling away at the billions of dollars draining the nation's financial health.

Keiser Institute on Aging Named Best New Product at International Conference

The Keiser Institute on Aging was honored at the 1999 International Leisure Industry Week (LIW) conference in Birmingham, England, for its innovative new approach to ensuring older adult wellness.

Founded in January 1999, the Keiser Institute on Aging integrates the efforts of researchers, practitioners and health care professionals to provide education, resources and programs that will empower older adults to achieve optimum health and wellness. The Keiser Institute on Aging comprises some of the nation's leading experts in the growing field of older adult wellness.

All In Fitness, which holds exclusive distribution and marketing rights for Keiser products in Great Britain and England, won the award for bringing the Keiser Institute on Aging to the United Kingdom.

Tim Colston, sales and marketing director of All in Fitness, says the Keiser Institute on Aging comes to the United Kingdom at a time when it is undergoing dramatic growth, and leisure center operators are actively seeking new markets. "Although other organizations have identified seniors as an important market," he notes, "none have developed a support program which is as comprehensive as the Keiser Institute on Aging."

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