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Healthy Horizons: Strong And Independent

With the right training, seniors can offset the debilitating effects of age.

Stereotypical depictions of the elderly often show older adults hunched over walkers, confined to wheelchairs-essentially in weakened conditions, incapable of living independently. But, like all stereotypes, this type of imagery paints an unfair picture, generalizing a group of people in the worst possible light.

Most people assume that the loss of functionality is the unavoidable cost of old age, and stereotypes like the ones above illustrate this attitude. In actuality, age doesn't cause frailty; inactivity does.

Inactivity can cost seniors their independence, leaving them unable to care for themselves. This loss of independence, in turn, collectively costs $26 billion dollars every year in medical bills and other related expenses, according to Colin Milner, vice president of sales of marketing for Keiser Corp. and COO for Keiser Institute on Aging. "That's a lot of money for something that can be prevented," he says.

That's right, prevented. "Many of the health problems we think of as inevitable effects of aging may actually be due to inactivity and disuse," says Maureen Hagan, national director of fitness for GoodLife Fitness, the largest club chain in Canada. "Have you ever heard, 'If you don't use it, you will lose it'? That is likely the case with being inactive."

Indeed, inactivity and old age can waste away muscle and strength. Generally speaking, women begin dropping muscle mass in their 40s, men in their 60s. And from the ages of 65 to 84, people lose 1.5 percent of their strength annually, Milner claims, which can lead to other problem. "Declines in strength are linked to everything from risk to fall to increased frailty," he says.

The thing is, these declines don't have to occur. Many fitness clubs limit their senior programming to low-impact aerobic activities, missing out another important piece of the puzzle: strength training, which can offset much of the decline triggered by advanced age.

A mounting supply of scientific evidence indicates that men and women of any age can turn back the clock with strength training. Ben Hurley, a professor of exercise physiology in the kinesiology department at the University of Maryland, has conducted research showing that, in a matter of two months, seniors can raise their strength 20 to 30 percent with exercise. And that's just in the case of someone who is already active. A sedentary senior can experience even higher strength increases.

Some seniors may argue that they are too old to be lifting weights. Their argument is flawed. Muscle doesn't lose resiliency with age. "Skeletal muscle seems to adapt just as well in older people as it does it younger people," Hurley notes.

The benefits of strength training go much deeper than muscle. Literally. One of Hurley's studies of osteoporosis shows that strength training improves bone mineral density, which helps to combat osteoporosis and fractures.

Not all researchers share this opinion; some present findings that argue there is no evidence linking strength training with an increase in bone density. However, researchers do concur on one point: strength training, at the very least, prevents the loss of bone mineral density. They just can't agree why this occurs. "The mechanism is not completely understood," Hurley says.

Hurley's study on strength training and osteoporosis focused on older men. This may seem unusual, since this affliction is often associated with older women. But, as Hurley pointed out, men also suffer from osteoporosis-they just develop this problem, on average, 10 years later than women, whose rate of osteoporosis goes up around menopause.

This isn't to suggest that men remain healthier longer than women do. Women may get osteoporosis 10 years earlier than men (generally speaking), but men tend to get heart disease 10 years earlier than women. Specifically, heart disease becomes more prevalent in men between the ages of 50 to 60.

Does this mean that strength training improves muscle and bone, yet leaves older adults susceptible to heart risks? Not at all. Hurley has found that strength training prevents heart disease. He claims that this form of exercise makes sugar metabolism more efficient, thereby reducing the likelihood of both heart disease and diabetes.

The benefits of strength training-especially when combined with cardio activity-don't stop there. "Research has shown that physical activity does much more than strengthen your heart and build you muscles and bones," Hagen says. "It improves how you feel about yourself and your life. Regular physical activity can renew you energy for living, quality of life and years of independent living."

Indeed, physical activity has been shown to reduce cancer, improve sleep, build self-esteem, enhance balance, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Even people who suffer from osteoarthritis can decrease their pain and increase their functionality through strength training. Hurley isn't sure why this happens, but he can speculate. "It strengthens the muscles adjoining that joint area," he explains, "so there is less stress on that area."

Since strength training provides a laundry list of benefits, why aren't older adults lining up to use strength machines and free weights? One reason is because the senior market exists outside of the comfort zone for most clubs, according to Milner. He notes that clubs and their trainers are accustomed to working with individuals who already possess, at the very least, a modest fitness level; as a result, they don't welcome deconditioned older adults into their facilities. And they certainly don't encourage the elderly to engage in strength training.

Instead of looking at seniors as a market that requires special attention and training, clubs should look at seniors as untapped profit potential, in Milner's opinion. He points out that older adults have 80 percent of the wealth and 55 percent of the discretionary income, yet clubs only direct 5 percent of their marketing efforts toward seniors. "In reality, we are looking at the largest business opportunity to come along in years," Milner notes.

Still, even clubs that do open their doors to seniors don't always find themselves attracting a gray-haired Hercules anxious to hit the strength equipment. Just because clubs offer services to seniors doesn't guarantee seniors will come. Special marketing is needed, especially if you want to get seniors into strength training.

Neil Wolkodoff runs MaxPerformance, a company that improves golf through training. He also runs Physical Golf, a personal training program at the Greenwood Athletic Club in Denver. He believes that you can't get the elderly active by marketing to them in the same fashion you would market to young adults. "I don't think seniors are into exercise for the exercise experience like someone who is 25," he says. "Someone who is 25 will [exercise] because they like the way it feels."

When working with seniors, don't tout exercise as a means of looking good and feeling sexy; tout exercise as means of staying healthy, strong and independent. Wolkodoff points out that in 1925, people burned off 2,500 calories per week in work. Nowadays, people burn 300 calories. And today's conveniences-from leaf blowers to riding lawnmowers-lessen typical energy expenditure even more. Therefore, exercise isn't about vanity, feeling the burn and squeezing into a bathing suit; it's about maintaining healthy levels of activity.

"This is not a luxury," Wolkodoff emphasizes. "This is a necessity."

To stress this necessity, Wolkodoff recommends that you explain the benefits of exercise in terms every senior can understand. Telling them that it helps improve general motor skills and coordination may lead to blank stares. Try a different perspective. As a golf trainer, for example, Wolkodoff tells seniors that exercise will help them improve putting. A more generic geriatric example would be to tell older adults that exercise would help them keep up with their grandchildren during play time.

Telling seniors the benefits of exercise may pique their interest, but you may need to build their confidence before getting them into club-particularly the strength room. Wolkodoff points out that seniors will often feel intimidated walking into a weight room because most of the people in there will younger than they are, lifting weights they probably can't lift.

To help seniors overcome this understandable discomfort, Wolkodoff builds their self-efficacy by putting them in situations where they succeed. He's opposed to treating them mostly with kid gloves because doing so, in his opinion, makes them feel like they can't achieve. He prefers to bring them into the free-weight area right away and have them lift light dumbbells.

Hurley, on the other hand, finds that older adults like machines more than free weights, noting that they associate dumbbells and barbells with bodybuilding-and bodybuilding intimidates them. Besides, it's easier to isolate a muscle group with a machine, he argues, adding that when you target a specific muscle with dumbbells or barbells, you have to use other muscles to stabilize the entire body, increasing the risk of injury in seniors.

This isn't to suggest that seniors should stay away from free weights. Barbells, dumbbells, machines-let the older adult make the choice. The results are the same. "If you are able to overload the muscle, you can get benefits from strength training," Hurley says.

The best way to measure these benefits is through record-keeping, Wolkodoff believes. He is a big proponent of tracking progress. During strength training, seniors should write down the weight they lifted, the number of reps, and so on. That way, if they lift 25 lbs. one day, they'll know they've improved if they lift 35 lbs. a week later. When they see they've made tangible progress, they feel better about themselves.

Seniors who are happy with their progress make great spokespeople for your club. "Clubs should identify older adult ambassadors and use them to promote their programs and business," says Hagan, who notes that GoodLife's average customer is older than a typical club member. "People are attracted to stories of success and can better relate to those within a similar circle of influence."

The Greenwood Athletic Club gets its 800 senior members involved by not attaching the word "senior" to programs. "They want to be a part," says Scott Nelsen, Greenwood's athletic director. "They don't want to be known as a senior. They want to be known as a member."

Since Greenwood drops the "senior" emphasis, seniors feel comfortable exercising in all areas of the club. Yes, Greenwood does offer the standard low-impact programs enjoyed by the elderly (e.g., Pilates, yoga, tai chi and water-based activities), but the older members aren't afraid of breaking a sweat doing strength training. "We are seeing that the senior market is really getting into the weight room," says Nelsen.

Hurley, for one, wishes that this were the case with more seniors. While a combination of cardio and strength activities works well for everyone, Hurley notes that when people become much older, their day-to-day activities are not limited by their cardio capabilities, but by their strength limitations. After all, seniors don't run around a lot, but they still need to lift things. Conversely, younger adults-who are naturally stronger than older adults-could use more cardio work than strength training.

Still, younger adults typically prefer strength exercise-but not for health benefits. They are worried about body image, and bodybuilding appeals to their look. Seniors, on the other hand, may not be worried about body image, so they steer clear of the strength area. Hurley knows this from experience. When he walks into the exercise facility at University of Maryland, he sees seniors on the cardio equipment and younger people working with the weights. "The exact opposite should be the case," he says.

As a club operator, you are in position to make this the case. Encourage older adults to adhere to a strength routine. Give them support. You'll strengthen your membership-in more ways than one.

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