According to IDEA Health and Fitness Association's research, 51 percent of all personal training clientele are over the age of 45. This would stand to reason as this group has more than 50 percent of the discretionary income, and they spend more of their income on health than any other item, according to the World Health Organization. But what impact is a rapidly graying nation having on group fitness?

Thought to be a fad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, dance exercise (later to be known as aerobics) has become a mainstay of fitness programming — even as some industry experts question the value of it. Since its inception when disco was king, aerobics has transformed the industry. Now under the category title of group exercise, aerobics and other forms of group activity continue to evolve, addressing the needs of a more diverse membership and older population.

According to IDEA's research, more than 59 percent of clubs now offer some form of senior classes. These classes include balance, core training, functional training, small group training, Pilates, yoga and sessions that address medical conditions.

Harvey Lauer, president of American Sports Data Inc., a health and fitness research firm, says the research shows that “there has been heavy participation in kinder, gentler activities for women over 55 — the nation's single fastest-growing group of exercisers in the United States.”

An organization that has thrived with group exercise for the older adult is Tempe, AZ-based HealthCare Dimensions (HCD). In 2000, the company began offering the SilverSneakers® Fitness Program to Medicare supplement carriers. The HCD program now touches more than 1.35 million older health plan members through partnerships with 24 health insurance providers and 1,100 fitness centers.

HCD is just one example of how a company can become a leader in the industry by offering group exercise for older adults. But what does the future hold for group exercise, and what types of programming will arrive on the fitness scene to meet the needs of the older adult?

Older adults have many needs, which will create multiple opportunities for your organization and the industry — so much so that a June 2004 article in the Boston Globe credited the increase in fitness workers from 177,790 in 2003 to 263,947 by 2012 to the aging of the American population and increased interest in worker fitness by employers.

To maximize this opportunity, be sure to keep the following market needs in mind, as they will help you figure out what types of programs to offer your older members:

  • Programs that can reduce the risk of developing chronic health conditions. IDEA's research highlights that sessions that address medical conditions are on the rise. Whether range of motion, strength or balance classes, these classes are important, especially when 33 percent of people over the age of 65 fall each year. What classes could you offer? How about heart health cardio classes, strong bones and Osteofit classes?

  • Programs that can help manage the effect of current health condition(s). We have seen the effect that offering gentler forms of exercise has had on the industry and on the body. After years of pounding our joints, gentle forms of exercise aren't just needed; they are necessary. Offering Osteofit or the PACE Arthritis classes is certainly a good start, but what else looms on the horizon? According to findings published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, walking on cobblestone mats can improve physical function and reduce blood pressure to a greater extent than regular walking.

  • Programs that can improve mood, cognitive health and a sense of well-being. During the last few years we have seen yoga and Pilates surge to the top of group exercise. This should come as no surprise, as the Boomers and their parents seek to connect with their inner self (in search of the meaning of life).

  • Programs that can improve mobility and ability to function independently. Today, we offer functional fitness but soon we will offer fitness to function (FTF) classes to help individuals accomplish their daily living activities (i.e. getting out of a chair or walking up stairs, both of which require strength in the legs and triceps).

Will the definition of group ex once again change to meet the needs of the Boomers and their parents? Dance exercise has changed to aerobics, aerobics has changed to group ex and group ex may change to group activity. While there's still many unanswered questions, I believe the future of group ex is gray.


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.