Have you ever walked into a closed door? The pain associated with this experience is swift and intense; it can also be long lasting. This is probably how many in the fitness industry felt after reading the April 15, 2006, IHRSA/CYBEX State of the Industry report. In the report, John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), highlighted the fact that, for the first time in a decade, the U.S. fitness industry's growth had stalled at 41.3 million members. McCarthy gave eight reasons why this occurred, and he said things would get better over time.

What goes down must come up, right? But what happens to you in the interim? How will this affect your business? And what do you have to do to make it go up again? To answer these questions, we first need to step back and look at some important factors affecting this situation:

  1. The industry churns through 100 percent of its members every three years (according to IHRSA, the attrition rate is 34.5 percent yearly).

  2. In a U.S. Census data analysis by the SIR Boomer Project, the 18- to 49-year-old segment is “dead” — virtually no population growth from 2006 to 2016 (from an estimated population of 135.1 million in 2006 to 135.9 million in 2016).

These two facts show that to grow your membership, you need to retain more members and attract the 50-plus segments. According to the SIR Boomer Project analysis, this group “will undergo a tremendous change as the rest of the nation's 78-million Baby Boomers turn 50 over the next decade, causing that segment to increase 25 percent between 2006 and 2016” (from 89.3 million in 2006 to 111.3 million in 2016). This change should come as no surprise, as this group was the reason the industry experienced the growth it did over the last decade.

Matt Thornhill, president of marketing research and consulting firm for the SIR Boomer Project, said marketers trying to grow their business during the next 10 years can either target the stagnant 18-49-year-old segment, or they can develop strategies to appeal to the fast-growing 50-plus group.

Don't fret; there is a silver lining. By attracting the 50-plus adult, you can increase your retention and grow your membership. Research published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that older adults have a retention rate of 80 percent. Why? Because this target market is more stable and has the money, need and desire for fitness. Also, they have seen enough progress in their fitness level during the past year that they have decided to continue with the program.

So, how would you like to add another 14.5 percent (80 percent retention rate of older adults versus 65.5 percent of the total market) to your retention rate? Many areas hold great promise for increasing membership within the 50-plus market. Rehabilitation, personal training and programming are three of them, and they hold promise for growth because of the Baby Boomers' appetite for competition. Think of all the weekend warriors who are competing every week against people younger than themselves.

Encouraged by doctors to continue to exercise, Baby Boomers are swelling the ranks in the running, swimming and biking worlds, thumbing their noses at conventional limits of the middle-aged body. At the same time, they are filling the nation's operating rooms and orthopedists' offices.

“Boomers are the first generation that grew up exercising, and the first that expects, indeed demands, that they be able to exercise into their 70s,” says Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, a Philadelphia-area orthopedic surgeon who coined and trademarked the term “boomeritis.”

Led by Baby Boomers, sports injuries have become the number-two reason for visits to a doctor's office behind the common cold, according to a 2003 survey by National Ambulatory Medical Care.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics study said infirmities associated with the athletic activities of middle-aged adults were the source of 488 million days of restricted work in 2002. When the Consumer Product Safety Commission examined emergency-room visits in 1998, it found sports-related injuries to Baby Boomers had risen by 33 percent since 1991 and totaled $18.7 billion in medical costs.

By offering personal training sessions and programming to Baby Boomers, you can tap into this market's unending desire to compete and remain youthful. Capturing the hearts, minds and dollars of the 50-plus could lead to increased retention and an abundance of new services that can increase your memberships during a downswing.


Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. He can be reached at colinmilner@icaa.cc.