Addressing the needs of older adults

We're growing older as a nation. Our aging population, boosted by a generation of baby boomers approaching retirement, can be a boon to the fitness industry - if clubs make an effort to garner this market. Let's look at some surprising statistics:

* Every eight minutes, someone turns 50.

* Over the next 10 years, the 55-to-59-year-old population is expected to increase by 54 percent, and the 60 to 64 age group will increase by 58 percent.

* By 2020, the number of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s will triple.

* For the first time in the history of the developed world, the older population will soon outnumber the younger population.

* Older adults comprise a busy and vital group that is looking for more ways to be active; for example, they represent 53 percent of adventure travelers.

Even with these astonishing demographic changes, fitness clubs are still focused on serving members in their 20s, according to Dennis Keiser, president of the Keiser Institute on Aging and Keiser Corp., which produces a line of low-impact pneumatic equipment. One reason for this inattention to older adults is that younger people are easier to service. With an older membership, a club must address more needs and more health issues such as arthritis and medications.

"When we older adults get hurt, we hurt more and we hurt longer. Which means that if we hurt too long, we'll drop out," says Keiser.

In addition, there's the issue of creating an environment suitable for the older adult. Throwing this group into a fitness program with a bunch of 20-year-olds is a recipe for failure.

"You can't mix them up," says Keiser. "You can't take a lot of Spandex-clad young bodies and place them in an environment with older adults and think the older adults aren't going to be intimidated."

To meet the special needs of older adults, instructors have to be better trained in fitness, interpreting medical histories and avoiding "ageism" - comments that will insult an older member.

Not only can't older adults be lumped in with younger members, they also can't be pigeonholed with people of different ages within their own group. "This is an army that you can't categorize," says Maria Stefan, vice president and executive director of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), which sponsors a program called Active and Ageless. "People who are 45 to 55 vs. 55 to 65 vs. 65 to 75 are very different people."

And they are certainly very different from people in their 20s and 30s. Still, clubs have concentrated mainly on younger members - mainly because, until recently, there were a lot of them. "There was an 88 percent increase in the number of people in their 20s from the '60s through the '80s," says Keiser. "Everybody thought that as an industry we were doing a great job. We weren't really doing anything but taking advantage of the growth in population of the market that we've always served."

But the industry is plateauing as a majority of this younger market slides out of the 20-something age range. In fact, the number of people in their 20s has decreased by 10 percent since 1990. And that's not all: In the next 10 years, we'll see an 8 percent drop in the 30-to-34-year-old population and a 17 percent drop in the 35-to-39-year-old population.

While older adults represent a growing - and potentially lucrative - market, some clubs continue to avoid them, citing the initial difficulties in serving seniors. However, the upshot of the demographic changes is that if you're not targeting this market, you risk losing active aging adults to clubs that will cater to their needs - and missing out on a big piece of the membership pie. "People caught onto physical fitness when the boom started in the late '70s," says Harvey Lauer of American Sports Data. "We just grew up to be older people, and guess what? We still [exercise]."

Besides being a huge demographic, older adults are a group with money to spend:

* Older adults have more than $900 billion in personal income. This represents almost 50 percent of the nation's discretionary income.

* Older adults hold 53 percent of the nation's wealth.

* Since many of the baby boomer generation are two-income house-holds, they will become two-pension households as well.

As if that weren't enough, these people who represent a growing portion of the population and hold more than half of the nation's wealth are going through lifestyle changes that make them amenable to exercise. Their children move out of the house. They retire. They may move into a smaller home.

Furthermore, they have come to understand - and fear - their own mortality by witnessing the health problems their own parents experienced. As a result, they turn to activities and behaviors that will allow them to avoid the suffering which their mothers and fathers endured while aging.

"These events cause a change in lifestyle where the self regains importance," says Stefan. "The self becomes more important than the demands of the children, the community, the career. A sense awakens that whispers, 'Now it's time for me.' "

The baby boomers, who have revolutionized every decade that they have lived in, are especially active people, used to doing things and going places. "They're intent on being able to continue to live as they've always lived," says Stefan. "They want to keep active, busy and involved. These people look to the fitness industry to provide them with ideas for how to fill their time."

And with ideas on how to improve health. As we get older, our bodies change - not always in ways that are positive. "The bodies are sending new messages," says Stefan. "Older adults are counting on exercise and better eating and new innovations to compensate for any feelings of getting older. They'll work harder to feel younger." This statement is borne out in the following statistics:

* Today, three in 10 health club members are 50 and over; in 1988, this figure was two in 10.

* 27 percent of these members participated in fitness activities 100 or more times per year.

* 48 percent of those aged 50 and over participate in physical activity three times per week.

* 30 percent of those aged 50 and over participate in physical activity one to two times per week.

* Between 1987 and 1998, the number of fitness club members over the age of 55 increased by more than 200 percent.

This means that the changes that occur in our lifestyles, financial situations and bodies as we grow older present an opportunity for the fitness industry to leverage physical fitness as the new health prescription for mature adults. "These people are still active, but they're also acutely aware of seeing illness in their peers," says Bill Howland, director of public relations and research at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). "They're aware of seeing high blood pressure, cancer and other illnesses. There's a motivation to become more physically active, and this is something clubs can tap into in a very positive way."

In its book 50 Million Members by 2010, IHRSA refers to the senior population as "the centerpiece of the industry's initiative" to create new memberships. And for good reason. Older adults are growing in number, interested in exercise, and committed. In fact, once older members start a fitness program, they are less likely to drop out. "When you start to look at exercising for health reasons, whether it's at age 40, 50 or 60, it's a commitment for life," says Keiser. "Because they're buying a membership for health - not for aesthetics or an event or another short-term reason - they're less likely to quit."

Clubs that serve only the younger market may brag of 50 new memberships in a month, but they may also have 30 or more members who quit during the same period. Older adults, on the other hand, are very loyal, and once they start to experience the benefits of exercise, they will tell all of their friends. This positive word of mouth means that senior members cost very little in terms of marketing and retention expenses.

Despite encouraging enrollment statistics, fitness clubs have only scratched the surface of the profitable older market. "Clubs have captured only 10 to 12 percent of the total population," says Howland. "And only 9 percent of people over the age of 55. There are a lot of people out there who are not members of clubs but who have more time, disposable income and motivation."

Anthony Slayen, senior program director of Cascade Athletic Clubs in Portland, Ore., understands the potential of the mature market. The club's Silver Power program caters to older members.

"We have 4,000 people over the age of 60 in our program," says Slayen. "We offer not only exercise programs but also a lot of senior group classes such as water walking, water aerobics, low impact aerobics, tai chi, line dancing and a chair class."

The response has been very positive. "Of the seniors that sign up, we have a 40 to 60 percent success rate, meaning that they stick with the program," Slayen says. When Cascade Athletic Clubs asked members why they exercise, the members mentioned mental health benefits; higher energy levels; fitness; happiness; self-esteem; and the elimination of depression.

With the huge growth of the older market and their increasing levels of activity, a club owner should just be able to throw open the doors and expect a flood of new members, right? Wrong. According to Keiser, if clubs ignore the older market, new entities, such as insurance companies, will move in.

Inertia and an addiction to the quick fix is another form of competition that can be hard for fitness clubs to break through. "That's difficult to overcome," says Howland. "That's powerful inertia keeping people on their couches" - and out of the fitness clubs. And older adults may prefer to rely on prescription medications rather than control medical problems through diet and exercise.

Other forms of entertainment and activity represent another source of rivalry for the fitness industry. "There are a whole host of options for what to do," says Stefan. "People choose shopping, they choose to go to the theater or the movies, they choose to exercise on their own."

The biggest competition for the lucrative older market, according to Stefan, is technology. "The second fastest-growing market for the Internet and the computer is the older population," says Stefan. However, this trend creates more social isolation than socialization - a problem that can be remedied by the camaraderie and interaction that fitness clubs provide.

So there we have it: Older adults are a growing demographic with money to spend and the motivation to exercise. Although it may be daunting at first due to older members' special needs and competition from various fronts, clubs should do what they can to tap into this lucrative market. "This population is one that we can't afford to ignore," says Stefan. "They're no longer a peripheral market."