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Multigenerational Programming

Help generations unite while becoming fitter at your facility. Offer classes, events and programs that appeal to memebers of all ages and fitness levels.

You may have read about it in the media, or heard about it through a friend. According to numerous reports, including the British report from the Fabian Society, "Children's poor eating habits could result in them living shorter lives than their parents." With the rise in obesity and waves of early chronic conditions, such as diabetes and osteoporosis, the trend toward longer life in the U.S. and other developed countries may now be in jeopardy. Add to this the decline in unstructured physical activity among the younger generations, and the future looks bleak.

But, it doesn't have to be that way.

Where to start

One solution to this looming health crisis lies with the fitness industry. But how can we inspire a generation of Xbox and Nintendo players to become more active? Inter- and multigenerational programming is a good place to start.

By offering programming for multiple generations, you provide the opportunity for parents and grandparents to spend time with their children and grandchildren. And, if you are lucky, you can involve great-grandparents, too. Imagine if, for every member, you could multiply your business threefold.

If intergenerational programming is not a part of your facility's mix, the following 10 tips offer programming ideas that you can use and expand on.

1. The bone deposit

Bone health is an issue for everyone. For children, who are drinking more soda, getting less exercise and becoming obese in greater numbers, preventing osteoporosis is the goal. Their parents and grandparents face this issue as well. One out of every two post-menopausal women over the age of 50 also have the initial stages of osteopenia.

Create a strength-training program that has the goal of increasing bone mineral density. Add to this exercises that improve balance to reduce the risk of falling, which can have a negative outcome for those with osteoporosis. To reward their ongoing participation, you can use the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports' awards program, offering each generation an award for participation.

Parents and grandparents can also provide rewards by putting $1 aside for each workout. These funds could go into an education fund for the younger generation. For the parent and grandparent, the reward is getting to spend time together and being able to help each generation age well.

There are still misconceptions out there about whether a child should perform strength training exercises. However, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are improvements to overall fitness and bone density in children as young as six who weight train, and there are no undue safety risks in properly supervised training programs. It is important, however, to offer programs with well-trained, attentive instructors who use equipment geared specifically for children.

2. Generations book club

Have the parent, grandparent and the child read the same book and then come together with other families once a month as the "Generation Book Club" to discuss what they read. Choose books that will help the younger generation inform their older family members about what it is like to be a child now. And have the parent or grandparent choose books that bring the past forward for the younger generation. This can be an amazing exchange between generations and peers.

To take the idea a step further, you may wish to incorporate a "Living Library." This program offers grandparents the opportunity to teach and share skills and talents with their children and grandchildren. Lessons may be as simple as "history" walks, where the grandparents can talk about local history. This is an opportunity to get generations united in an exercise program, the walk, while they stimulate the sense of family history in a social environment. If this is done in a large setting, offer parents and grandparents from each family the time to speak about their history.

3. A family occasion

Find activities that allow all generations to exercise together. Offer outdoor biking and walking trips. Hold a club Olympics, with categories for all members of the family to enter, such as running (treadmill), biking (cycles), rowing (rowing machine), etc. Or, have a sports day competition at a local park and get all members to come out and cheer, whether their family is involved or not. Make it a big deal, and consider having proceeds go to charity. Be sure to choose activities that everyone can do, and make it fun.

4. GPS scavenger hunts

Hold a "scavenger hunt" using a GPS system. This will offer generations an opportunity to learn from each other. List items to find by using the coordinates on the GPS. At the end of the walk, the group with the most items can win a prize.

5. It all about fun

Develop programs that are fun for the whole family. This could be as simple as playing tag, skipping or using a Hula Hoop. Or it could be as complex as river rafting or horseback riding. Overweight children, especially those who are non-competitive, may enjoy activities more if the environment is non-threatening.

6. Around the world in 80 days

The objective of this program is to encourage all generations to walk "around the world" in 80 days, figuratively speaking. Every step is recorded and converted into actual mileage. Have a map on the wall showing the progress of those participating. To reward them for their participation, use the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports' awards program. As the participants reach each country, they can learn more about it by taking turns informing each other. For example, the first country the grandmother discusses, then the mother, then the child, then the father and so on. This program will help to educate while achieving the benefits associated with walking.

7. Go green

Offer the whole family the opportunity to become involved in environmental causes in the community, such as adopting a highway, cleaning parks and beaches, or initiatives like Habitat for Humanity. Focus on initiatives that are active, keeping your clients moving while keeping the community clean and green.

8. Act up!

Bring out the creative and fun side of your older clients and their families. Have them become part of a theater group that will write, produce, direct and create the sets for a year-end play for members. Make the play active and fun.

9. Keep it in the group

Offer group classes for everyone, such as ballroom dance, swimming lessons, tai chi, yoga and other classes where all members of the family can participate. Consider offering family dance nights. Invent a new dance and name it after each family that participates. This is also an opportunity to share cultural dances with each generation in the family. The options are endless, as are the rewards.

10. Health observances and fundraisers

Take advantage of the many national health observances to get participants active. These opportunities also show you care. Choose causes that are of interest to all generations. Examples include school fundraisers or fundraisers for kid's sports teams. Other special occasions could be for osteoporosis, grandparent's day, older adults month, senior fitness day, mother's and father's day, and many more. If they enter a walk for heart disease, use this opportunity to explain more about heart disease and what can be done to protect against it.

A bright future

You have heard it before: The family that plays together, stays together. By offering all generations an opportunity to contribute and grow, you create an opportunity for children to have a link to the past, and a more positive perception of aging. You also give parents and grandparents the opportunity to be youthful with their family members, offering them a healthier and more fulfilling future. By offering multigenerational programming, you and your members will share multiple rewards.

Mind: Your Business

By Tracy Hafen, M.S. July 2007

Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, National Public Radio (NPR) - the list grows every day. All have run or aired stories this past year on the aging brain and its effects on everyone, personally and collectively. NPR's story this spring tackled the issue of Alzheimer's disease, and it is a major issue: Currently, 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, with the number predicted to reach at least 15 million by mid-century as baby boomers age. The expert in the story discussed the risks for and signs of the disease, current treatments, and the personal and national costs of caring for the people affected by it. Age is the single greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's - 1 percent at age 60, climbing dramatically to 50 percent at age 85. When speaking of currently available medical treatments, the expert had little to offer.

Luckily for our brains, medicine isn't the only possible solution out there. You in the fitness industry have the ability to offer something more powerful and effective in the way of brain health than any medication on the market today: physical fitness.

The cover story of the March 26, 2007, edition of Newsweek was titled, "Exercise and the Brain." Physical activity is increasingly being recognized as one of the most critical ways to keep not only the body healthy, but the brain, as well. In 2004, two medical/scientific studies linking exercise to brain health appeared in the same issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. One study demonstrated that healthy older women who walked at least 1.5 hours per week at a modest pace had better mental function and less memory decline. Their brains functioned as if they were considerably younger. Researchers concluded that, "long-term regular physical activity, including walking, is associated with significantly better cognitive function and less cognitive decline in older women." The second study found that men over the age of 70 could cut their risk of overall dementia, including Alzheimer's and the dementia associated with vascular disease (stroke), by about half through a regular walking program, the greatest protective effect occurring at distances of 2 miles or more per day.

The exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves brain health remain unclear, but research continues to provide clues. We know that the healthy aging brain decreases in size as we age, much as muscle mass and bone mass decrease. And, just as decrease in muscle size correlates with decrease in muscular strength, so losses in brain tissue parallel age-associated losses in memory and cognition.

Until recently, it was medical and scientific dogma that it was a one-way, down-hill street for brain size and the number of brain cells in the aging brain: Both decreased. Modern brain science has demonstrated conclusively that this is simply wrong. We now know that the brain can produce new nerve cells well into our mature years - of course, not at the rate it did when we were two years old. And, modest aerobic exercise is one of the behaviors that promotes new brain cell generation.

Modest aerobic exercise leads to increases in both brain size and function; it is performance training for the brain. In a landmark 2006 study, researchers from the University of Illinois studied a group of healthy but sedentary adults, ages 60 to 79. They began a walking program of 15 minutes, three times per week, and increased over a six-month period to 45 to 60 minutes, three times per week. Brain scans performed at the end of the six months revealed an enlargement of frontal and temporal lobe structures, two brain areas critical for memory and thinking. So, while resistance training causes muscle hypertrophy, modest cardiorespiratory training appears to trigger brain growth in key areas for memory and other cognitive functioning.

Finally, exercise promotes brain health by keeping blood vessels open and pliable. In some cases, memory loss and cognitive decline result from a series of small strokes that deprive parts of the brain of oxygen, leading to cell death. So, the effects of exercise on blood pressure, diabetes risk and cholesterol levels, among others, further demonstrates the value exercise has for the brain.

While members may come through your doors with goals of looking good and feeling good, they will get the fringe benefit of thinking well and increasing their chances of having a healthy, productive mind well into their later years. They may be hoping to cut their risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes or osteoporosis, but they will also cut their risk of Alzheimer's and the normal age-associated memory problems virtually everyone over the age of 50 complains about.

Increasingly, research is telling you that you are in the mind business as much as the body business. And, consumers are sure to follow suit. As more media and medical attention focuses on the topic, greater numbers of people will be driven to your facility not only to keep their hearts pumping, but to keep memories alive and vital so that everything else has meaning.

Tracy Hafen, M.S., exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer, is director of physical exercise programs for BrainSavers LLC ( Hafen can be contacted at
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