Physical activity is a well-documented solution to maintaining quality of life for adults 50 years and older. Yet, with the low amount of exercise participation among adults in general, is it worthwhile for organizations serving older adults to expand their activity and wellness programs?

The answer is a resounding “yes” in the opinion of 497 active-aging businesses responding to a new International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) survey. A nearly unanimous 95 percent said having a fitness or wellness center or a physical activity program targeting older adults attracted more residents/members. Ninety-three percent said these programs retained their clients.

The ICAA Survey “Marketing Value and Financing Methods for Older Adult Fitness and Wellness Programs” was conducted in October 2005. Five hundred and forty people responded to three questions sent to the ICAA e-mail list. Of this number, 497 responses were categorized by type of business and were included in the results. The ICAA survey included responses from retirement communities and senior housing (27 percent); fitness or wellness centers and health clubs (25 percent); personal training (11 percent); Area Agencies on Aging (8 percent); community and recreation centers (8 percent); senior centers (5 percent); universities (5 percent); government (4 percent); consultants (3 percent); YMCAs (2 percent); hospitals (2 percent); physical therapists (2 percent); Title 5 and 6 (1 percent); and spas (0.5 percent).

Age-friendly fitness options are a great business driver. Most active adult communities include wellness centers as part of their planned communities. This survey shows adding age-targeted programs provides a tremendous benefit to other types of senior housing, fitness facilities and publicly sponsored community programs.

And, with the growth of the population, there is a strong need for community-based exercise and activity options. Based on a comparison with U.S. 2000 Census data, the number of community physical activity programs will need to increase by 78 percent to provide sufficient opportunities for older adults.

Why don't more facilities offer physical activity? The 326 facilities that did not offer physical activity programs cited perceived lack of interest among older adults (50 percent), lack of funding (46 percent), lack of staff interest (44 percent), lack of staff knowledge regarding frail adults (34 percent), staff shortage (34 percent), lack of staff training regarding older adults (24 percent) and concerns about liability (23 percent).

When it comes to securing funding, creativity may be the solution, according to respondents: 39 percent use two to five methods of paying for the program, while 61 percent use only one. Charging a fee per use/session, selling memberships and building program cost into community fees were the most popular revenue-generating methods.

The type of method used varied by the type of facility. The Area Agencies on Aging use public funding, and the fitness centers rely on the resident endowment foundation, Medicare capitation payment from the federal government and federal grants. The senior centers' tax base subsidizes classes by 40 percent, and the participants pay a fee to cover the rest. The retirement communities and senior housing depend on grant funding, fund raising events and either selling memberships or building the cost into resident fees.

However you fund older adult programs, activity options in communities are paramount as people remain in their homes for as long as possible. In fact, 30 percent of older adults use exercise and activity facilities in their communities, according to research by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

If you're wondering what types of programs to offer your seniors, here are your best bets according to AARP: strength training was the most popular program (31 percent), then aerobics (22 percent) and miscellaneous activities, such as walking, running, dance, cycling, yoga, basketball, golf and water activities.

As community facilities change to accommodate the next generation of older adults, they need to develop programs that are contemporary and interesting. People would attend community programs, according to the AARP survey, if the programs were age-targeted but not concentrated on specific diseases, offered more variety in class types, were conveniently located and cost less.

The older adult population is so large that virtually every private and public sector must appeal to them. Active aging means older adults participate fully in their lives through wellness activities. The enormous demographic shift in the number of older adults and the buying power of the Baby Boomers (more than $2 trillion) offers unprecedented opportunities for those who meet and exceed their needs.


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.