Health Clubs Offer Programming for Seniors

Health Clubs Offer Programming for Seniors

Market Maturity: Engaging Baby Boomers as members can boost a health club's bottom line as well as its retention efforts.

As millions of Baby Boomers near retirement age, many are focusing on their health for more active aging. Moving forward, savvy club operators should offer a good mix of programming to appeal to an older crowd without alienating younger members in the process.

The staff at the Parkwood YMCA in Lansing, MI, has achieved this delicate balance. A well-designed programming schedule with targeted classes for older adults helps that facility serve members of all ages, says Molly Smith, health and wellness director for the Parkwood YMCA. The Y currently has about 1,200 older adult members in its fitness program.

The key is attention to scheduling, Smith says. Retirees, for instance, are free to attend classes during the afternoon while younger adults are still at work.

“It's easy to cater to both populations as long as you have good program management skills,” Smith says. “We have a couple of hours in the morning that we set aside for senior classes and times during the day for younger classes. On our schedule, we also set [difficulty] levels so people can immediately see what they're signing up for and know they'll be comfortable.”

In addition, the Y offers an Active Older Adults program for seniors in which they work out at the facility several days a week for seven to 12 weeks.

If a club isn't actively courting an older client base, it could be missing the boat in terms of membership revenue, says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging.

“With Baby Boomers, this group has money to stick with you as a member, and their health is important to them,” Milner says. “But 88 to 90 percent of Baby Boomers surveyed in a Natural Marketing Institute study said they were dissatisfied with their fitness regimens. We need to ask, ‘How do we serve you better?' We're talking about the largest population in terms of growth with the most amount of dollars.”

Although many fitness facility operators would like to serve this lucrative demographic, some of them don't quite know how, but it can be done, says Janie Clark, president of the American Senior Fitness Association.

“You need to be smart about it, but there's no reason you can't serve a very large population,” she says. “You don't need to have one club for the older set and one club for the younger set.”

Creating targeted programs also helps the Parkwood Y successfully serve its older member base. The Y hosts a Silver Sneakers series and an enhanced fitness course in conjunction with the local department of community health. For that, members of the Parkwood staff go out into the community to offer tailored programs, such as chair-based fitness classes, for seniors with limited mobility who are unable to visit the Y in person.

“We serve a variety of seniors, from people who are mobile, to seniors with disabilities,” Smith says.

A recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found that people now entering their 60s have a greater incidence of disabilities than people in their 70s and 80s. The study found that people entering their 60s are more likely to suffer from arthritis, dementia, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and osteoporosis.

“Our results have significant and sobering implications: Older Americans face increased disability, and society faces increased costs to meet the health care needs of these disabled Americans,” wrote Teresa Seeman, principal study author and UCLA professor of medicine and epidemiology.

A joint study published by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) also found that older Americans are the least physically active of any age group and generate the highest medical expenditures.

These are several of the reasons why fitness programming for older adults was named one of the top 10 trends for 2010 by ACSM.


Because of the health and fitness concerns that are specific to older adults, trainers and instructors should be well educated about conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and hypertension, says Clark. She also says programming should follow guidelines set up for older adults, such as those by ACSM and the AHA.

And it's essential for trainers and instructors to communicate with older clients to find out their expectations and goals, says Terry Eckmann, associate professor, Teacher Education and Human Performance at Minot State University, Minot, ND.

“It's important that trainers look at the specificity of why they're training. Is it to improve their golf game, or is it to continue engaging in daily activities?” she says. “Trainers should also consider the functional relevance of the activity they're doing. They should challenge older adults just like everyone else because older adults can advance in training just like younger people can.”

Instructors and trainers that are tuned in to their students' medical needs are a plus for any club, says Barry Klein, owner of Elevations Health Club, East Stroudsburg, PA, which has a total of three clubs. Klein notes that the median age of his membership is getting increasingly older. He says once they're aware of member needs and skill sets, trainers and instructors can adjust their program's level of difficulty accordingly.

“Knowing your demographic that attends a given class is important, and the instructor needs to be aware to provide options for everyone,” Klein says. “We offer Yoga I, and most people go to that. Seniors aren't going to go to Power Yoga because the name scares them away. We do have some very intense classes, and some people belong in those and some don't.”

Club operators don't necessarily need to develop new programming for older adults, but it's wise to consider adjusting existing classes to accommodate all skill levels. For example, in regularly offered group exercise programming, such as Zumba and step classes, instructors can offer a variation on moves that might work better for older adults, Eckmann says.

"There's no reason older adults can't do Zumba if you just modify the steps you do," Eckmann says. "When step classes first came out, they said older people can't do stepping, but older adults can do step classes. It's important to have options for different ability levels."

In one step class she organized for older adults, Eckmann says some participants used a 6-inch bench, while others used a 4-inch bench, and some people just used tape on the floor where their bench would be.

Eckmann also notes that dance classes can be especially effective for older adults because dance has been shown to have a strong cognitive component in addition to its aerobic benefits.

Classes specifically targeted to address medical needs are popular with this demographic, Clark says. One of the most popular classes she taught as a fitness professional was an osteoarthritis class for older adults.

"I knew everyone's specific aches and pains. It's very doable. An arthritis-specific program also acts as a support group," she says.


The support and social value of joining a health club are especially important to older adults, Clark says.

"Depending on the individual, social opportunities can be a plus at any age, but with older adults, social interaction also is important from a cognitive health standpoint," she says. "Conversations and relationships all help keep your brain active, and a sense of belonging to a group can help ward off depression and stress issues."

In addition to its health benefits, socializing can boost member retention. Smith partially credits the Parkwood YMCA's social opportunities for its large senior population.

"Friends keep people coming out because a lot of times, seniors have lost a spouse or their children have moved away, so they're on their own. So opportunities for socializing probably keep them coming back as much as the exercise," Smith says.

Eckmann recommends planning social events around national observances, such as National Senior Health and Fitness Day in May or America on the Move Week in September. Operators also can plan fun, informal classes to make older members feel more confident about coming to the club to work out.

"To attract older members, there are lots of special events and promotions you can do, like Big T-shirt class where everyone wears big T-shirts so they feel more comfortable working out," Eckmann says.

Self-defense classes for older adults also promote socializing because participants are working on a shared goal, Clark notes. She says that it's important for club staff to make older members feel welcome since they initially may feel awkward going to the gym.

"If a club owner makes sure everyone that works at the club is courteous and welcoming, it will go a long way toward retaining and getting referrals," she says. "Even trainers not working with the senior population and the front desk personnel are important because a lot of older adults may be trying the health club scene for the first time. It's important that they be greeted warmly to make them feel at home."

To attract older members, Smith recommends that club operators figure out where seniors in their area already meet.

"You've got to search out the market and figure out where seniors may hang out," she says. "To attract seniors, we do lots of word-of-mouth [advertising] and community involvement. We put ads in the library because it's a good place for seniors — or churches are good if you can find a local church with a large senior population."

Eckmann recommends that a club get involved with local charities, such as the AHA or American Cancer Society. Free training coupons can be donated as charity fundraiser items, she says.

Klein has noticed an increasing number of older adults on Facebook. His club uses its online social networking efforts to announce upcoming events and draw in new member leads.

Klein also uses his club's e-mail news alerts to make club members aware of scheduling changes or pool closings, in addition to upcoming events.

So while it may seem like there's a great divide between 20-somethings and older adults, the Baby Boomers are redefining how Americans age. And as health care becomes more costly, preventative measures such as exercise will become more important. So in the coming years, smart club operators are wise to spend both time and effort to attract older members into their facilities.


Although older personal trainers can relate well to the challenges that aging members face, it's not mandatory to hire older trainers to serve a senior clientele, says Molly Smith, health and wellness director for the Parkwood YMCA, Lansing, MI.

"With regard to age of trainers, we've gone both ways," she says. "It works well for young trainers if they have the right personality, though if they're too young, some of the older people might see them as just kids, where an older individual can relate to their aches and pains."

It's a matter of assigning the right trainer to the right client, says Barry Klein, owner of Elevations Health Club, East Stroudsburg, PA. Klein says his clubs' demographic has been in the 30- to 50-year-old range but started "skewing older" after they installed a pool for aquatics programming a few years ago.

"In our case, it's not that we adjusted staffing, but we have a broad enough staff that they're in touch with an older community," Klein says. "We have some group fitness instructors that are a little bit older themselves, and a couple of younger staff with the temperament and skills to really click with the seniors."

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