Over the last 15 years, I have presented hundreds of seminars on how fitness facilities can attract older adults. At almost every presentation, someone asks, “Do older adults prefer to work out with people their own age or with younger people?”

This question has always created great debate. However, the answer may be found in research done by Mark Beauchamp, an assistant professor in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Beauchamp and his colleagues found that “although older adults may report a lack of appeal for exercising with those much younger than themselves, they actually exhibit a positive preference for exercising with those of their own age.”

The study, which appeared in the April issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, provides “useful insight into the preferences of older exercisers, which in turn have important implications for exercise promotion initiatives [in communities around the world],” he writes.

Could this research be one of the reasons we have not seen the predicted flood of older adults into fitness facilities? Could it be why a class filled with 20- and 30-year-olds has little appeal to those over the age of 50? Could it be why a facility that uses youth-oriented advertising misses out on a substantial number of older adults versus a facility that uses age-appropriate advertising? Could it be why manufacturers that build products that are suited to the younger market are missing the boat?

In reality, this research isn't news to those facilities that are already meeting the needs of older adults. Considering the fact that older adults are turned off by marketing that is focused on the younger generation, why would older adults not be turned off by facilities and programs that have that focus, too? It is simply the first rule of running a business — speak to the consumer and his or her needs.

What this research shows is that many older adults prefer to be in an environment with their peers. Yes, some elite, older athletes and fit adults may wish to exercise around those of similar fitness levels to themselves — young or old — but for the vast majority, they want to be around people they can relate to and people who are at the same stage of life.

Another finding in the research revealed older adults' desire for group exercise. Beauchamp says that it's vital that government officials take steps to better “promote opportunities that will encourage healthy and physically active lifestyles” by increasing the availability of group exercise opportunities across the life span.

There are a number of ways to address this, including creating a facility that brings together like-minded older adults, dedicating a section of your current facility to meet the needs of the majority of your older adult members, implementing programs such as licensed or branded group exercise programming for older adults, developing ageless advertising and marketing, and purchasing equipment that is designed with the needs of the older market in mind.

If you decide not to do any of these things, you'll most likely still benefit from the trickle effect. You could even get enough older adult members to feel like you have many of them, but will you really reach your true potential when it comes to attracting older adults? This research and common sense suggests you may not.

Whatever you do, remember this — it is all about the older adults and their needs, not about you and your facility's needs. Fulfill what your potential older clients are seeking, and you will fill your facility with exactly who you want.

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.