Senior Fitness: Past, Present, Future


In our final edition of the Healthy Horizons series, we look back--and ahead--to the issues affecting senior wellness.

Over the past couple of years, the media have drummed it into our heads: The baby boomers are striding en masse past middle age and into fitness clubs. By 2020, the number of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s will triple. According to the Sporting Good Manufacturers Association (SGMA), since 1990 the number of health club members aged 35 to 54 has grown from 6.3 million to 10.5 million, and the number of members aged 55 and above has increased from 1.9 million to a whopping 4.9 million.

This boomer boom portends great opportunities for the fitness industry. But have club owners been heeding the numbers? In this, the last in a long-running Club Indus-try series on senior fitness, we'll take a look at how the fitness industry has changed in the face of this ever-expanding older market-and what still needs to be done to ensure success in the future.

Attitude Shift
Not only is the older adult market quickly outpacing the younger market, but seniors' attitudes toward fitness are changing faster than ever.

"There's been so much media coverage on the importance of physical activity that the older adult market is becoming much better educated," says Kay Van Norman, founder of SENioRS Unlimited in Bozeman, Mont., a consulting firm specializing in exercise and wellness programming for older adults. "They're starting to realize that if they stay physically active, they can function at a high level and not have to give up their favorite activities." Van Norman says that this realization has led to a surge in personal trainers for older adults.

Research has played no small part in this attitude shift; more and more studies are confirming that exercise can keep older adults limber, decrease the incidence of disease and even reverse some signs of aging. For example, a 1994 study by Tufts University researchers that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association de-termined that exercise can reverse the disuse factor at any age-a conclusion that's been duplicated by a number of other studies in the past few years. And in 1999, the Mac-Arthur Foundation released the re-sults of a study on successful aging conducted over 10 years on thousands of older adults (the results are summarized in the book Suc-cessful Aging by John Rowe, M.D., and Robert Kahn, Ph.D.).

"The key component in all studies was meaningful physical activity," according to Jan Montague of Montague, Eippert and Associates in Highland Heights, Ky., which designs, develops and implements wellness programming, models and philosophies for the retirement housing industry.

The media also play an important role in changing older adults' attitudes toward exercise. "Journal-ists are trying to interview the right people and portray a positive image for senior fitness," says Montague. "It used to be an attitude of 'Isn't that cute?' or 'Isn't that unusual?'-just joking about it."

"You don't have to advertise about the benefits of health and fitness because it's in all the magazines and papers," adds Glenn Colarossi, president of AgeFit in Stamford, Conn., which manages 14 assisted and independent living facilities for the aged. "The New York Times recently had a cover on immortality, Parade ran a 'living longer better' piece, and Tuesdays with Morrie [by Mitch Albom], which deals with issues of dependence, is a best-selling book."

The Good News
In light of the changing marketplace and encouraging research touting the benefits of exercise for older adults, how are fitness clubs faring? First, the good news: "Fit-ness clubs are recognizing the fact that the number of older adult participants is starting to increase, and that they're a great group of people to have as members," according to Van Norman.

This realization has been reflected in the number of degrees and courses addressing senior fitness that have cropped up recently. For example, says Montague, California State University at Fullerton offers undergraduate- and graduate-level certification through the Ruby Gerontology Center, while the Fisher Institute of Wellness and Gerontology at Ball State Univer-sity in Muncie, Ind., offers a gerontology track in its fitness degree program. Finally, explains Monta-gue, "There are a lot more grant opportunities for organizations as well as for students who are pursuing those tracks."

Suppliers of fitness equipment have also been working to keep pace with this expanding market. Some manufacturers are even adding educational channels and Internet access to their cardio equipment in an attempt to entice older adults.

The Not-So-Good News
According to Van Norman, lip service to the idea of accessibility has been more evident in fitness clubs than the real deal. A few clubs may have taken steps to make their facilities more attractive and accessible to older adults, but many have just refurbished their regular programs in hopes of drawing in the older crowd. "They do low-impact aerobics or play oldies and call it a senior class," says Van Norman.

Montague agrees. "I see a lot of the same old, same old," she says. "It's the same old program with a different label-just toning things down."

Colarossi also believes that the fitness industry still has a way to go when it comes to serving older adults. When asked whether clubs have made their facilities more accessible, he replies, "They like to say they have. But we're still a relatively youthful industry."

The challenge, Colarossi says, is not so much in attracting boomers as in welcoming the physically frail. "Boomers who are in shape will continue to go to a fitness facility," he explains. "Clubs will make gradual changes for them. But the senior population can't join a normal health club."

To determine whether they've done enough to make older adults feel at home, Van Norman suggests that club owners look at their operations with a critical eye and ask themselves some hard questions, such as: Is the decor of the club inviting, or does it feature posters of young hard bodies? Is the equipment in the pro shop geared to 6-foot-plus male athletes? Is anything in the newsletter relevant to older adults?

Colarossi also believes that if fitness clubs don't improve their offerings and work harder to draw in older adults, the senior housing industry will step up to the plate, leading to increased competition between senior housing and fitness clubs. "The senior housing market is being recognized as a trendsetter," he says. "They started overbuilding housing and then needed to differentiate themselves, so they decided to focus on health and fitness."

Looking to the Future
Van Norman predicts that in order to attract and keep older members, fitness clubs will need to expand their repertoire from the usual body fitness angle. "It's clear that older adults are not interested just in exercise and fitness, but in the whole mind-body-spirit connection," she says. "When the fitness clubs understand that they can administer to more than just physical needs, they'll realize their potential in this area."

Once clubs renovate their offerings, they'll need to change their advertising and the way they market to members, says Montague. "Soon the old advertising won't work, because the common denominator won't be age but ability," she says. "Programs will have to be designed to meet needs based on ability."

This means that advertising will have to play to that fact. "Baby boomers won't come if your ads call it a senior program," says Montague. "You'll have to learn about the different cohorts and how to speak to them."

Although the media have been feeding the surge of interest in fitness for older adults, Montague believes that there's a lot of room for improvement on this front as well. "The real twist is to ask not what's wrong with people, but positive questions about what's right with people," says Montague. "That shift needs to occur faster than it is. We still see gloom and doom in the ads; everything's phrased as a negative."

Baby Boom = Business Boom
The past few years have seen great strides in senior fitness and in older adults' attitudes toward exercise. Researchers, the media, universities and equipment manufacturers have reacted to the shift in the marketplace and charted the course for the fitness industry.

Now it's time for club owners to follow their lead and tap into this booming market.

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