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45-Plus Promise

By Sue Hildreth

New IHRSA research reveals what seniors and baby boomers really want from your club    

The value of exercise for seniors has been well documented for ages. A regular workout routine can—just for starters—help control blood pressure and maintain flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular well-being, offering seniors a more active, rewarding, and independent life. 

Despite the numerous benefits that exercise affords, only 16% of individuals 66 years or older currently belong to a fitness center, and three-quarters have never been members, according to the IHRSA Trend Report: First Quarter 2012. For baby boomers, those aged 45 to 65, nearly 70% have never purchased a membership.

The latest IHRSA report, which covers the period of January to March 2012, examines the behavior of 1,000 members, former members, and nonmembers. It’s the most recent in a series of trend analysis reports that the association has produced over the past few years.

“The IHRSA Trend Report is derived from a quarterly study that IHRSA conducts with the Leisure Trends Group, a research firm based in Boulder, Colorado. Each quarter, 1,000 online interviews are conducted to ascertain how Americans, ages 16 and older, perceive health clubs,” explains Melissa Rodriguez, IHRSA’s senior research manager. “This report considers how club operators can attract and keep older members involved, and lure back ones who have left.”

Tempting, but untapped

While fewer seniors and boomers than one might have guessed belong to clubs, there is a silver lining. Both cohorts represent a huge, largely untapped, and increasingly viable market for fitness services. 

Lloyd Gainsboro, the owner of the Dedham Health and Athletic Complex, in Dedham, Massachusetts, firmly believes that IHRSA clubs could expand their memberships significantly by, for instance, introduc- ing more medically oriented programs.

“The data in this report provides insight into how clubs are doing at attracting and retaining seniors. And it tells me that too few of them are doing a good job of targeting people with medical issues,” he observes. “We need to demonstrate, for our members and prospective members, that the services we offer have real value.”

The Trend Report’s findings support the view that more medically oriented programs and services can attract older individuals. Over 90% of those over age 65 who have belonged to a club said that they’d joined to “stay healthy.” Of those, nearly one-third had been prompted to do so by a “specific health concern,” such as diabetes, excess weight, high blood pressure, or other age-related medical conditions.

Baby boomers, following in the footsteps of the seniors (officially, the Eisenhower Generation), will also require more medically based fitness options as they age. While they may have driven the high-impact aerobics trend of the ’80s, today’s boomers—who are approaching or have reached retirement—now need help to stay healthy, remain flexible, maintain or lose weight, and maintain muscle and bone mass.

Clubs can help them achieve all of these goals, and operators like Gainsboro believe the industry needs
to promote such solid, tangible benefits much more aggressively. “Someone with Type 2 diabetes pays 
$5,500 a year out of their own pocket—just in co-pays,” he points out. “We could cut that figure in half within two years if people made use of a supervised fitness program just two to three times a week.”

To appeal to baby boomers, the report’s authors suggest that clubs also offer flexible and affordable membership plans, provide greater variety in terms of their cardio and strength equipment, and showcase the qualifications of their fitness professionals. Programs tailored for boomers might include, for example, orientation classes for using fitness equipment, workshops on weight loss, and yoga classes to increase flexibility and strength.

While seniors often join clubs to address a health condition, one in five of them subsequently quit because of an injury, operation, or other medical condi- tion. To help them stay the course, the Trend Report suggests programs such as walking groups, tai chi and flexibility exercise, strength training for seniors, and free health seminars on nutrition or active aging. 

When targeting the older Eisenhower-era crowd, clubs should also consider discounted membership plans, prehab and rehab training, and collaborative efforts with local medical providers. These partners can provide educational classes and other programming to help individuals with specific medical needs.

Why people join ... and quit

It’s clear that most people, regardless of age, join and continue to make use of their clubs in order to get, and remain, fit and healthy. What distinguishes them from one another is what fitness means to them. When asked for a reason for joining, do they check off “stay in shape,” “overall health,” “maintain weight,” “build muscle,” or something else?

For instance, members of Generation Z, which consists of high school- and college-aged individuals, join to “stay in shape” and “maintain strength.” By way of contrast, Generation X-ers (31–45-year olds) report that they want to “lose weight,” “stay in shape,” or “build muscle.”

For the boomer and Eisenhower groups, the situation is quite different. Both identify “health” and “well-being” as their principal drivers to remain members. The latter cohort picked health/well-being by a landslide (96%), which was followed by “stay/get in shape” and “convenience of location.”

When it comes to reasons for quitting, “cost,” cited by 52.2% of the respondents, led the pack, followed by “lack of use.”

Young Generation Y adults fingered cost 54.5% of the time, but it’s the boomers who seem to be feeling the financial pinch most severely; fully 58.7% of them cited cost as the reason for resigning. This, predictably, has to do with a sluggish economy, concerns over jobs, and low consumer confidence. The percentage of club members who quit because of cost jumped from 38% in the third quarter of 2011 to more than 50% by the first quarter of this year.

Inactivity is another key cause of membership cancellations. Nearly 30% of the people polled left because of lack of use. Surprisingly, it was young people—members of Generation Y and Generation Z—who were the least active. Some 41.5% of the Generation Y respondents, and 53.5% of the Generation Z respondents, identified lack of use as a membership-breaker. Inactivity was also a problem, albeit a smaller one, with older members. Some 20% of the baby boomers didn’t visit their club often enough to justify rejoining, and nearly a third of the oldest members quit because of inactivity.

The IHRSA Trend Report concludes that affordable memberships, targeted programs, and personal attention would, in fact, attract a much larger number of older (45-plus) members. Baby boomers and seniors are, after all, the two populations that clearly stand to gain the most from a regular, professionally supervised fitness regimen. “Although, at the moment, the penetration rates for these two cohorts are relatively low,” observes Jay Ablondi, the executive vice president of global products for IHRSA, “clubs stand in a unique position to meet their needs, and, in the process, grow their businesses.” 

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