The senior population is rapidly growing due to both improvements in medical care and aging of the baby boomer generation, who are now between the ages of 54 and 72 years. In comparison to the generations before them, baby boomers show more interest in their own health and have a greater investment in leading an active lifestyle, which has contributed to the rise in gym membership among older adults. As a result, fitness clubs must be prepared to meet the needs of older adults, many of whom may be joining a fitness center for the first time. In fact, according to a 2018 report from IHRSA, gym memberships increased by 63% from 2006-2016 for those aged 55 and older. Therefore, offering senior-focused fitness assessments, programming and equipment, as well as a trained staff to specifically work with seniors, is necessary to serve these members.
While traditional fitness assessments may be suitable for some active agers who have high fitness levels, senior-specific assessments that evaluate functional fitness may be more appropriate for this population since they are at an increased risk for physical impairments, falls and loss of independence. These assessments can be important for identifying functional strengths and weaknesses, providing valuable feedback and designing an appropriate exercise program for your senior members. Several useful assessments include:
Functional Fitness Test: This measures functional fitness using a series of easy-to-perform tests to assess strength, aerobic endurance, flexibility and agility. The tests include a chair stand, arm curl, step test, chair sit and reach, back scratch and timed up and go.
Short Physical Performance Battery: This test assesses lower body physical function using three tests that evaluate balance, gait speed and chair stand time.
Continuous Scale-Physical Functional Performance Test: This test is generally performed in a research setting as it requires more equipment, a validated facility, trained personnel and analysis software. However, it could be a valuable tool to measure functional fitness in older adults in a health club setting. The assessments mimic activities of daily living and include tasks such as carrying a weighted pot, putting on a jacket, getting down and up off the floor, carrying groceries and climbing stairs.
Developing senior-focused programming can provide your active agers with the education, knowledge and practical experience to meet their needs and fitness goals. Senior-specific group exercise programs such as low-impact cardiovascular or weight training classes, gentle yoga, tai chi and water-based formats can help serve a large population with varying fitness levels. In addition, offering special workshops focused on fall prevention, balance training, managing chronic diseases and healthy living can serve as both an educational and practical opportunity as well as promote social interaction among members. To determine what programs would best support your older adults, you should conduct a program review and needs assessment to evaluate your club’s current offerings, assess member needs and identify opportunities for new programs.
Treadmills, recumbent bikes and cross trainers, and ellipticals can provide low-impact opportunities for cardiovascular training. In addition, resistance machines can be a safe and effective option for strength training. Other equipment such as resistance bands, dumbbells, medicine balls, stability balls and balance pads can be used to train functional strength, muscle power, coordination and balance, which are important for maintaining physical function. Sturdy chairs can be helpful for individuals with functional limitations and can be especially useful during group exercise classes.
Since many older adults at your club may have functional limitations, increased risk for falling or chronic diseases, it is important that your staff has specialized training to work with this population. Staff trainings should focus on aging physiology, pathophysiology, exercise program design for older adults and special populations, and instructional techniques.
Implementing senior-specific assessments, programming and equipment as well as ensuring your staff is properly trained to work with this population can help accommodate the specific needs of the active agers in your club. This can ultimately help improve the overall experience for your members as well as increase program participation and retention rates. If your staff is interested in training for active agers, courses focused on senior fitness, among other resources, can make a lasting impact.