Club operators need to understand that, today, seniors are fitter and feistier than ever
When it comes to today’s older adult population, one thing is becoming very clear: seniors are accomplishing more at later stages in life than their parents did. In many ways, they’re redefining the notion of aging.
Nowhere is this fact more evident than within the realm of sports and fitness.
Consider, for example, 71-year-old Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan. An accomplished equestrian, he’ll compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Or how about Florida’s Bernice Bates, who, at 91, is, according to the Guinness World Records, the world’s oldest yoga teacher? Then there’s 101-year-old Fauja Singh of India; just last year, he completed his seventh marathon.
While certainly among the more accomplished of their generation, these individuals are, nonetheless, representative of an overall trend. These days, seniors are fitter, and more interested in enhancing their health and well-being through physical activity, than ever before.
Many also think younger. They grew up listening to the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and may be very much attuned to contemporary music and mores. This fact is important for club operators and program directors to consider when creating programs for this group, lest they treat these individuals as old, irrelevant, and out of touch, without intending to.
Researcher Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, the head of the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has spent the past 25 years studying the effects of exercise on health and quality of life in old age, has watched this phenomenon unfold. Recently, in the New York Times, he observed that, “for the first time, we have a cohort of people who are just getting ready to retire and have an expectation of being physically active.”
Colin Milner, the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, couldn’t agree more. “The desire to remain engaged and active is definitely quite high,” he remarks.
The idea that elders are eagerly donning gym clothes and lacing up their cross-trainers isn’t conjecture—the numbers bear the fact out. According to annual surveys conducted by IHRSA, membership rates among those over age 55 rose from 1.5 million to well over 10.5 million between 1987 and 2008.
What’s more, now that the sizeable baby boomer crowd has begun to go grey, these figures are expected to continue to increase exponentially in the coming years.
What’s ‘new’ about old
But is this development really surprising?
After all, this is a generation that grew up reading Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s Aerobics, sweated in spandex under the tutelage of Jane Fonda, and witnessed bodybuilding become more mainstream in the form of strength training. They’ve been, and continue to be, bombarded with anti-aging advertising and marketing campaigns. In addition, over the past 50 years or so, innovative medical advancements have been helping to forestall the aging process, and ameliorate a number of physical maladies that, otherwise, might impair mobility.
This new breed of more-active-than-ever senior is well primed for membership, Milner suggests.
However, to actually attract and retain these individuals, clubs must be proactive. Facilities, he says, need to familiarize themselves with their capabilities, expectations, dreams, desires, and needs. “The organizations that do this,” he assures, “will prosper.”
Mike Waters, the health promotion director for the Timberhill Athletic Club (TAC), in Corvallis, Oregon, is one professional who’s acquired significant insight into who the modern-day older adult is, and what they actually want from a club.
TAC is a full-service, 65,000-square-foot facility that features, among other things, two outdoor swimming pools, a pro shop, six racquetball courts, two group exercise studios, a cycling studio, a squash court, and a state-of-the-art fitness center.
Approximately 70% of the membership, Waters says, is over the age of 65. And, as he’s watched the club grow progressively grey over the past decade, he’s witnesses a clear and definitive transformation in this group—one that demands that clubs reassess their traditional approach.
“As one example, I’m now doing fitness testing with 90-year-olds. Never did I imagine that I’d be doing that,” notes Waters. “What’s equally fascinating to me are the results. I routinely see individuals in their 80s and 90s who far and away exceed the norms. They’re stronger, more flexible, and healthier cardiovascular-wise than would be expected. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Yet, as many older adults are demonstrating improved physical prowess, and while much about them is changing, Waters concedes that much remains the same.
“Their physiology, their biology, is still, as you might anticipate, different from that of younger populations. Therefore, we can’t—just because they appear to be in better shape—train them based on guidelines created for individuals in their 20s or 30s. We must program based on their unique capacities which, by comparison, will typically be limited.”
“Regardless of how fit they may appear, or how youthful their attitude, there can be underlying health concerns,” adds Janie Clark, the president of the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA), based in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
Given this, she contends, “Clubs need to employ staff specially trained to work with people who may present with arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, and other such problems. They need personnel who are familiar with common medications and related interactions.”
Graham Melstrand, the vice president of business development for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), of San Diego, California, agrees, and offers an additional caveat. “A 70-year-old, even if they’re an athlete, isn’t going to recover from a workout the same way a 30-year-old will,” he points out.
What’s ‘personal’ is possible
The motivation to be active, coupled with the realities of the aging body, means that clubs face special challenges when working with older adults. But that’s actually a good thing, Melstrand says. It represents “an emerging opportunity.”
It’s no longer appropriate to lump all older adults into a low-intensity “senior” workout. That’s an outdated model, he insists. Instead, it’s more suitable and productive to create and offer programming “based on an individual’s level of function.” Workouts, he suggests, should no longer be dictated by the person’s age, but, rather, by their own particular abilities.
Personal “customized programs” represent the ideal approach, maintains Sheldon Zinberg, M.D., the chairman and president of the health club chain Nifty after Fifty, LLC. Headquartered in Garden Grove, California, the franchise boasts 28 facilities in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, which average 3,500-5,000-square-feet in size. Each is designed to appeal to clients 50 and over, affording them access to high-quality workout equipment, consultations, a day spa, and physical therapy services.
Even for the more robust baby boomers, including those who are quite savvy about fitness, and, especially, for those who are suffering from disease or have difficulty with ambulation, “the importance of addressing the individual needs” can’t be emphasized enough, Zinberg remarks.
To that end, all new Nifty after Fifty clients undergo a personal, comprehensive evaluation that are performed by graduate kinesiologists under the supervision of physical therapists. Both the kinesiologists and therapists have undergone extensive senior-centric training.
Following the initial testing, the individually tailored approach continues to define the direction training takes.
With that in mind, Zinberg says that a common mistake many clubs make is over-utilizing group exercise for this age bracket. “Any exercise is better than no exercise,” he assures, “but one-on-one supervision and ongoing monitoring is critical to success.”
“There are new trails that must be blazed,” agrees Walter Bortz II, M.D., a clinical associate professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in Stanford, California, and a highly respected expert on aging and longevity. “The new club environment needs to promote multiple choices and embrace new affiliations.”
Bortz, at 82, is himself an avid runner and a vocal advocate for exercise. In his opinion, so-called aging-related woes are attributable primarily to disuse. That message, he proclaims, is becoming more evident to today’s elder demographic. “Older people are living longer and living healthier. And they’re getting smarter. Fitness, for them, is imperative.”
Because of this, client and club alike stand to benefit if the current club model matures with respect to older people. “Within the industry, there’s the opportunity for a true win-win situation to be realized,” he states.
Older adults want and need health-enhancing options, Bortz notes, and clubs clearly have much to gain by responding to the needs of this population. According to a national survey by Harris Interactive, this group represents $2.3 trillion in spending power in the U.S., alone.
“Simply put, this population is interested in maintaining quality of life by staying as healthy as possible,” says Milner. “If you respond, you’ll be relevant…and you’ll excel.”
Bortz stresses a final critical point: “It’s never too late to start.”
It’s an accurate declaration that applies not only to the client, but to the club industry, as well.
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