Focus On Retention

Focus On Retention

Meeting the Needs of Senior Members

Older adult club members generally have the resources to buy what they want, expect value for their dollar, compare services, want to remain independent and active, and are extremely loyal to a program that consistently meets their needs.

Many physically elite (senior athletes) and physically fit (those who exercise vigorously at least two times per week) seniors can blend into a club environment with minimal accommodations. However, many seniors who are living independently (usually without debilitating symptoms of major chronic diseases) still may have low health/fitness reserves and diminished function, impacting exercise safety.

The physically independent category of seniors ranges from older adults who are barely physically independent and searching for solutions to their physical decline, to seniors who are functionally independent and active but need the guidance and motivation that a club can offer. These seniors are a largely untapped source for members because many facilities do not know how to meet their needs once they attract them.

Facility Atmosphere

Seniors will be motivated to remain in your club if the programs consistently provide positive experiences and results. This motivation starts from the minute they walk in the door:

Are there any images of older adults around your facility or are all the posters, photos, etc. of young “body beautiful” models? Are there any items in the pro shop that might appeal to someone in the 55-plus age range or are they all geared toward the 20-year-old set (thong leotards, mid-drift tops, etc.)? Does the music playing over a speaker appeal to a broad audience or only the very young? All of these factors determine how comfortable and inviting your “atmosphere” is to senior members.


Instructors will have the biggest impact on retention, so they must be trained to understand and program for the special needs of older adults. Additionally, they must have the proper attitude.

Instructors should genuinely enjoy interacting with the students and realize that their relationship with the class will largely determine retention. They must dress appropriately (no thongs need apply) and should take the time to make sure the music is appropriate to the population. Playing “top 40's hits” in older adult classes is as ridiculous as playing old show tunes in a class for 20-year-olds.

Instructors must make each participant successful in movement. Therefore, complicated patterns and challenging combinations will not appeal to older adult members who may be new to group exercise. The last thing you want is for a member to leave the class feeling like, “It's too late for me, I should have started this years ago.” She won't be back.

Simple movement patterns with an emphasis on facilitating social interaction will provide a much more positive experience for senior students. In aerobics programs, I recommend instructors create a simple “home base” step (like marching in place, for example) that they can return to frequently throughout the class to ensure all participants are successful in movement at least part of the time.

Formations should vary from the traditional “front facing” to circles and lines facing each other. This fosters social interaction and also allows the instructor to monitor the participants' responses to exercise.


The equipment in a facility can either frustrate or support the efforts of your new senior members. When purchasing equipment, add pieces that meet a wider range of functional needs.

Strength equipment should be easy to adjust to a wide range of body sizes, allow for adding small increments of weight rather than the traditional 5- to 10-pound plates, and have easy-to-read adjustments and numbers. Treadmills most appropriate for older adults need wider decks, full railings, slow starting speeds (1/2-1 m.p.h.), lanyard clips for automatic shutoff, and simple display panels without complicated computerized programs.

Kay Van Norman is an author and speaker who provides consulting services and products for senior exercise and wellness. She can be reached at (406) 587-0786.

Instructors Determine Program Success

  • Understand and program for special physical needs
  • Dress appropriately for the population
  • Use music participants can relate to
  • Foster social relationships
  • Ensure success in movement
  • Carefully monitor exercise intensity and responses

Equipment Requirements

  • Must easily adjust to a wide range of body sizes
  • Should allow for adding 1-2 pound increments of weight
  • Must have easy-to-read adjustments and numbers
  • Must have range-of-motion adjustments to protect joints
  • Must be easy to enter and exit
  • Wider than average decks
  • Full-size handles/bars
  • Slow starting speeds (1/2-1 m.p.h.)
  • Automatic shutoff (lanyard clip)
  • Simple operation and easy-to-read panel
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