Meet the Expert: Older Adult Solutions

Move beyond the status quo to attract and serve the growing older adult population.

The fitness industry's core membership, 18- to 49-year-olds, will experience virtually no population growth between 2006 and 2016, according to U.S. Census data analysis by the SIR Boomer Project. The impact from this is already being felt, as, for the first time in more than a decade, fitness membership numbers are on the decline. Compounding this decline is the fact that fitness centers keep spending obscene amounts of money to persuade the already-converted to join, while the industry has a yearly attrition rate of 27 percent (according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, Boston, Mass.). That is one full fitness center's worth of members who leave every 3.7 years. In addition, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June 2008, the level of leisure time physical activity rates of adults 18 and older dipped from 31.8 percent in 1997 to 30.8 percent in 2007.

Given these statistics, and the fact that the industry's growth now lays squarely on the shoulders of the unconverted baby boomers - a segment of the U.S. population that will increase 25 percent between 2006 and 2016 - the greatest challenge for the fitness industry is to remain relevant.

Even though these statistics may seem gloomy, they actually present great opportunities for the fitness industry. If facilities focus on the market beyond the declining numbers of younger generations, then they will find potential members who are loyal, have disposable income and often have time for leisure activities. So, ask yourself the following questions in relation to this changing market:

  • What resources and personnel will I need to maximize this opportunity?
  • Where will I situate the services or facilities I intend to create?
  • How will I incorporate these new programs into my current business model?
  • Who will champion the process?

The opportunity

BCC Research, Wellesley, Mass., projects that, by 2009, consumers will spend more than $72 billion on products and services to help slow the aging process. This is what happens when the largest, richest and fastest-growing segments of the population demand products and services designed and marketed specifically for them.

As upward of 78 million boomers make their way into retirement with more than $2 trillion in buying power, they will be demanding more from your business - especially given the fact that only 27 percent of fitness centers offer programs for older adults, according to a 2005 multi-site survey by Dr. Susan Hughes.

The possibilities

Almost every element of society needs to make adjustments to better serve the older market, including fitness equipment manufacturers and fitness service providers. Most adults ages 65-plus - 88 percent of whom have at least one chronic health condition - are attempting to prevent, delay, manage or improve their ongoing health conditions. And it is not just older adults who are affected. Today, 125 million Americans have one or more chronic conditions (45 percent of the population), and almost half of them have multiple chronic conditions (Projection of Chronic Illness Prevalence and Cost Inflation. RAND Corp., October 2000).

These facts are part of what is driving the creation of numerous multi-billion dollar industries. According to the research firm Packaged Facts, New York, N.Y., condition-specific products are expected to help "drive dietary supplement sales over the $6 billion mark by 2011." But this is only the start. "Food and beverages that offer health and disease prevention benefits beyond basic nutrition are at the cusp of a major growth wave in the United States," according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, Ill.

The situation is clear: Older adults are seeking solutions, and they are willing to invest in their heath. As a matter of fact, they spend more on their health than on anything else, according to the World Heath Organization. The question is, how can you tap into this opportunity?

Condition-specific products and services

Grocery stores are masters at branding specific areas of the store, so why not fitness centers? Why not create a "Chronic Solutions Center" within your facility? This area could be a stand-alone space that offers the following services for older adults and others:

Assessment service. Many older adults do not get the basic preventive screening tests they need from their physician. To address this issue, you could partner with a medical assessment group that would locate their practice inside of your fitness center, and offer your members screenings for diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, joint issues and more. If they can't locate their service inside your center, you could seek out a mobile screening service that could come to your location one or twice a week.

A specialized team. Your condition-specific team could consist of a medical doctor, registered dietitian, physical therapist, well-educated condition-specific personal trainers, massage therapist and other allied professionals.

Educational center and programs. To support your focus on providing conditions-specific education, create an information dissemination kiosk that provides literature from various advocate groups (American Heart Association, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, American Dietetic Association, etc.). Beyond this, offer classroom-style learning opportunities, such as cooking classes that address conditions ranging from diabetes to high cholesterol. You could also offer a lecture series on issues such as weight management; joint, heart and eye health; depression; chronic fatigue; fibromyalgia and more.

Physical activity programs. According to Dr. Ronald M. Davis, president of the American Medical Association, "If we had a pill that contained all of the benefits of exercise, it would be the most widely prescribed drug in the world." But, since we don't have this magic pill, we will have to rely on what we know does work: exercise. Condition-specific exercise programs can be plentiful, from cancer to heart disease, fibromyalgia to depression, diabetes to high blood pressure. A well-rounded physical activity program can help members fight virtually any health condition. The key, as with all programming, is to ensure that you have staff who are trained to deal with these issues.

Complementary and alternative medicines. Sixty-three percent of adults 50 or older use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Of those, 66 percent do so to treat a specific condition, and 65 percent use CAM for overall wellness. According to research from AARP, these users of CAM (and your potential members) participated in the following activities:
  • 43 percent used prayer for their own health
  • 24 percent used prayer by others for the respondent's health
  • 19 percent used natural products (herbs, other botanicals, enzymes)
  • 12 percent participated in deep breathing exercises
  • 10 percent participated in a prayer group for their own health
  • 8 percent used meditation
  • 8 percent used chiropractic care
  • 5 percent participated in yoga
  • 5 percent used massage
  • 4 percent used diet-based therapies (Atkins, Pritikin, Ornish, Zone)
How many of these opportunities have you, or could you, add into your programming mix? It may sound odd for a fitness center, but how about offering a 15-minute prayer session, having the person who delivers it focus the prayer on better health for themselves and the group? Or, you could offer yoga, massage, deep breathing classes or chiropractic services.

Spa services. The baby boomer's desire for healthy solutions is partially behind the rapid rise of the spa industry. According to the International Medical Spa Association, the medical spa industry now has more than 1,500 locations. At a growth rate of 300 percent over the past three years, this segment of the $12 billion U.S. spa market is a prime example of what happens when healthcare and spa services combine.

The California Health and Longevity Centers, Los Angeles, Calif., is a prime example of a wellness center that has incorporated many elements of a Medispa into their setting. The center offers complementary and alternative medicine, dermatology services, a variety of examinations and assessments, a vast array of fitness opportunities, and lifestyle modification services and counseling, all in a world-class setting.

If you don't have the financial resources to incorporate these elements into your center, you may wish to approach a local Medispa to sublet space in your center. If space is an issue, you may wish to partner with a Medispa group in your neighborhood that offers you a referral fee on each service or procedure provided.

Make your facility relevant

To become more relevant to an older population, fitness centers need to move beyond the programs, products and services being offered today. It means taking a new approach. The above are a few ways to break through the status quo in an effort to grow your membership. But there are many other opportunities within the wellness arena. Whether providing emotional, spiritual, social, vocational, intellectual or physical health solutions, investing in these new areas to create industry-changing products and services may be a wiser choice than spending your hard-earned dollars to persuade the already converted. The opportunity is clear, the stage is set. The direction is now up to you.
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