Clubs Lure Older Adults with Equipment and Programming

OVERLAND PARK, KS — As Baby Boomers become seniors, club operators are looking to attract and retain the Baby Boomer and senior markets through programming and equipment that meet their needs.

More clubs are offering programs such as Silver Sneakers or their own senior programs, and many equipment manufacturers are starting to build products for these markets, but growth in this area is not at the level it should be, says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, BC, Canada, despite the over-55 age group being the fastest-growing demographic in health clubs today.

“The older adult population should be 50 percent of the club population,” Milner says. “If we were thinking outside of our daily box, we would have been doing things to accommodate a lot of them before now. It's better late than never if we can do that.”

Unfortunately, as these groups remain active, they are experiencing more injuries. Sports injuries are the second-leading cause for Baby Boomers to visit their physicians, Milner says.

“A lot of it is weekend warrior things — not doing much during the week and then doing a lot on the weekend and then spending the rest of the week recuperating or in rehab,” Milner says.

Although people often touted that the Baby Boomers would be the fittest generation ever, the reality is that they are not, Milner says. The obesity epidemic has hit this group like it has all the others. In the past few months, at least two reports have shown that the oldest Baby Boomers — 60 and up — as well as the younger Baby Boomers are experiencing more disability than previously anticipated.

Bill Fabrocini, director of The Aspen Club's Sports Performance Center in Aspen, CO, sees an active Baby Boomer and senior demographic in his club. The Aspen Club has 2,000 members, a significant portion of which are Baby Boomers and older, he says, although he has not calculated the exact number. The club provides education about exercise to its members, and it offers a balance in group exercise classes that include softer classes in addition to high-impact classes.

The YMCA of Greater San Antonio also has a large Baby Boomer and senior population. About 30 percent to 40 percent of the members are Baby Boomers, and about 25 percent are 65 years old or older, says Baron Herdelin-Doherty, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater San Antonio, which has 10 locations.

Many of the seniors at the Y participate in the water and group exercise classes, which include classes specifically targeting active older adults, Herdelin-Doherty says. Offerings such as the Pilates Reformer classes also are popular as they are “yoga-ish,” calm and not aggressive, he says. The Baby Boomers are drawn to Zumba classes and those that target specific body parts, he says.

Adding this type of programming was a conscious effort to appeal to the older markets, Herdelin-Doherty says. It's also why Herdelin-Doherty decided to purchase an AlterG for one of the Y locations.

The AlterG is an anti-gravity treadmill that allows users to adjust speed and incline, but it also allows them to adjust their body weight from normal down to 20 percent of their body weight in 1 percent increments, according to Lars Barfod, CEO of AlterG, Fremont, CA. The product not only is beneficial for Baby Boomers and seniors with injuries but also for anyone with injuries. It is used for athletes, the obese population and people with neurological issues, such as strokes or Parkinson's disease.

“You can't fall and injure yourself with our product,” Barfod says. “Because of the air pressure you have on your body, it creates a tugging feeling. If you slip, you just hang. The bubble will carry you if you fall or stumble.”

Both the Y in San Antonio and The Aspen Club have an AlterG, which operators can buy for $25,000 to $27,000 (depending on the model) or can lease for $500 to $700 per month, depending on which lease plan they choose. The machine allows them to recoup their investment by charging anywhere from $10 to $30 per 30-minute session for use of the AlterG.

The two clubs also offer other equipment specific to the Baby Boomer and senior markets. Products popular with the older market at the Y in San Antonio include ellipticals, the upper body ergometers, equipment that works the core and improves balance, and stretching equipment, Herdelin-Doherty says. This group also is a growing market for the personal training department, particularly since they generally have more wealth than younger members.

Baby Boomers want sophistication, non-intimidating equipment and simplicity in their workouts, says Ken Pearson, vice president of sales and marketing for SciFit, which designs equipment for special populations, including older people. The company developed FitQuick, which is a cardio circuit incorporating functional strength and concentric/isokinetic movement. The equipment offers the ability to reduce intensity levels for seniors.

The SciFit elliptical uses orthopedic foot beds, which offer a more natural movement and are based off the cadence of natural walking, something that can help improve balance, Pearson says.

Being able to provide measurements to show improvement is important for Baby Boomers and seniors, Pearson says, which is why SciFit is incorporating this into its equipment. The equipment measures heart rate, power and strength.

Manufacturers are making equipment with larger placards and larger print, easier adjustments, and easier access to get on and off for the senior market, but equipment with these features helps everyone, not just seniors, Milner says.

“If you build your equipment for the young market, older adults may not be able to use it, but if you build it for the older market, everyone will be able to use it,” Milner says.

However, he adds that building certain equipment specifically for the older market isn't the way manufacturers should think as it reduces the scope of products that could be built. Instead, manufacturers should build products that are accessible by everyone and every functional ability.

The equipment and programming targeting these two groups has become more important during the recession since they attract those with higher disposable income among Baby Boomers and seniors. However, the money these markets bring in is difficult to quantify. Instead, Fabrocini focuses on what it would cost if he didn't have equipment and programs for them.

“If you don't have programs in place — a pool, group exercise, etc. — you'll lose them,” Fabrocini says. “They'd go elsewhere. You have to have these programs in place so you don't exclude older people.”

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