Dottie Drake never stepped foot into a health club before the age of 47. At that time, she was diabetic, obese and had hypertension. Just walking up a flight of stairs made her winded. After researching the positive effects of exercise, she became determined to lose weight and get off her long list of medications. She visited five health clubs in New Jersey as a prospective member. However, she says that none of them wanted to make an investment in her personal health. Rather than giving up on exercise, Drake took matters into her own hands by becoming certified as a personal trainer and founding her own health club, Miracles Fitness, which focuses on personal and group training. Nine years later, she owns three over-40 clubs and has sold three Miracles Fitness franchises in Indiana, New Jersey and Louisiana.

“I can't believe how it's taken off,” says Drake, whose profits increased by 50 percent during the first two years in business. “In the first three months, I invested in the business, and since that time, the business has sustained itself.”

The 50-plus market comprises nearly 40 percent of the U.S. adult population. Seniors control more than 70 percent of the disposable income and have more than $1.6 trillion in spending power, according to Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, which publishes market intelligence on several consumer industries. Seniors also are the fastest growing segment of health club memberships, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Many entrepreneurs see the potential in this market and are opening clubs that target seniors — although no firm numbers are available on how many clubs for those over 50 exist.

Club 50 is one chain in that market. It focuses on nutrition and combines strength training and cardio in a 30-minute workout. The four-year-old company now has 53 franchises across the country and is opening two new franchises each month. CEO Mike Martin predicts that the 50-plus market will continue to expand.

“It's the fastest growing demographic with a tremendous amount of disposable income, and they have more time and want to lead an active lifestyle,” Martin says. “We believe that fitness is never more important than at the age of 50. When you're a younger person, fitness is an option. When you get older, it's mandatory.”

Get with the Group

Many of the fitness entrepreneurs who see potential in the over-50 market are taking a lesson from the success of Curves' circuit model and are adapting it to the over-50 clubs, says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council of Active Aging. However, he questions the future of this type of model in the over-50 market because older adults have diverse needs and medical conditions that often require personalized service. In fact, almost 85 percent of older adults have at least one medical condition

“We've gotten to the point where we want to run people through quick circuits and then get them out,” he says. “The mature population wants and needs the service. What we know about the older adult market is that one size doesn't fit all.”

Of course, not all over-50 clubs use a circuit training model. To address individual needs, some of them offer personal training. The West Lafayette, IN, franchise of Miracles Fitness is no exception. The club's eight personal trainers, who all have master's degrees in exercise science, offer small-group training sessions such as strength training for women.

“Group training is more economical, and they get the social aspect, which older adults enjoy,” says Cody Sipe, the former director of the A.H. Ismail Fitness and Nutrition Research and Exercise Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. Sipe partnered with Dan Richie, a former Purdue graduate student, to buy the franchise.

The 6,100-square-foot club is open to adults over the age of 18, but Sipe and Richie specialize in providing services to those 40-and-over as well as individuals with Parkinson's disease, joint replacements, multiple sclerosis and blindness.

The club, which opened in January, now has 200 members who pay a $175 initiation fee and $19.50 every two weeks for an annual contract. The members range in age from 31 to 93, and 76 percent of the members are female. Once the club is fully operational, Sipe expects it to generate $750,000 in revenue per year.

“People will see that we have a completely different approach to fitness,” Sipe says. “We are interested in meeting the needs of the older adult and Baby Boomer. With my heart, I think this is the way the Boomer market will change the fitness industry because this is what they really want.”

Just as each over-50 facility has a slightly different business model, type of equipment and specialization, each club also has its own way of approaching personal training. Rather than making its 280 members pay an hourly rate for a personal trainer, Fifty 'n Fit, an Albuquerque, NM, club, always has one available on the floor. That's a concept that Sandy Coffman, president of Programming for Profit, a Bradenton, FL-based firm, applauds.

“The more you give away to this market, the more you will sell,” Coffman says. “It's like happy hour. If you give the first drink for free, you're bound to sell more.”

A Doctor in the House

Some of the over-50 clubs not only focus on personal training, but they also hire medical or allied health professionals to help seniors increase their independence and improve their mobility through a safe exercise program.

Many of the Miracles Fitness clubs offer physical therapy services. Drake says she will require future franchisees to make it a part of their business model.

Having a fitness center operated by physical therapists amounts to safe exercise, says George Fraser, who bought Fifty 'n Fit seven years ago with his wife, Pat, who is also a physical therapist. About 1,100 square feet of the facility is used for physical therapy, and 4,200 square feet is set aside for the fitness center.

“About 60 percent of our membership is female, and they're all postmenopausal,” says Fraser, who recently earned his personal training certification from the Cooper Institute. “The loss of bone density and arthritic joints is true for a lot of people.”

Members pay a $210 startup fee, which includes three 90-minute sessions with a personal trainer. The monthly membership is $60 for a single member and $99 for a couple. The club, which doesn't require members to sign a contract, generates revenue of between $400,000 and $500,000 per year, Fraser says.

“Small gyms like us don't make a lot of money. Our physical therapy practice is what helps keep us going,” he says. “We are still in the black, and it's going well.”

Customized Workouts

Because many older adults don't know how to exercise safely, the staff at each Miracles Fitness club creates a personalized exercise program for every member.

Another over-50 club, Boomer Fitness, a 1,600-square-foot club in San Carlos, CA, also doesn't treat its members with a one-size-fits-all approach. Because of its focus on personal service, the club beat its projections of breaking even within its first six months in business and has successfully competed with 15 other clubs within a one-mile radius, says CEO Arleen Cauchi.

The club's four part-time employees design an exercise program for each member by starting with a prepared workout program and then layering exercises unique to each individual based on their muscle imbalances, goals and past injuries. The workouts also strive to improve core stability and flexibility, which are not only useful in day-to-day activities but also in sports performance. As people age, they have more time to play sports, but they can't play them because it hurts their back and shoulders, Cauchi says. By helping them improve their performance in a game they love, it often motivates them to get back into the gym, she says.

Exercise not only can improve sports performance, but it can also help older adults lead fuller, more meaningful lives, Drake says. During her nine years in the business, she has seen members give up their walkers and wheelchairs and get off their medications simply because they exercise regularly.

“I got into this as a matter of necessity to save my own health, and I realized that there are a lot more people who had been like me and who were looking for a safe, non-intimidating environment,” she says. “It's the most rewarding thing I've done in my life.”

Five Tips on Marketing To Older Adults

  1. Offer educational sessions on topics that appeal to seniors, such as financial planning, weight training for women or chronic health conditions.

  2. Make your club a social outlet for your members.

  3. Don't turn off younger Baby Boomers by using the word “senior” in your club's name or marketing materials.

  4. Offer personalized service rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, and consider having personal trainers available on the club floor at all times.

  5. Invest in equipment that is joint-friendly and accessible for members with varying health conditions.

Age-Friendly Equipment

Some health clubs spend millions of dollars to open a facility and buy equipment without researching the target market, which can be a costly mistake when it comes to the senior market, says Colin Milner, president of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA). To help clubs select age-friendly equipment, the ICAA lists the profiles of the following preferred vendors at http://www.icaa.cc/preferredvendors/vendors.htm: