The International Council on Active Aging defines active aging as “engaged in life.” Active aging describes people and populations living life as fully as possible within the dimensions of wellness (emotional, vocational, physical, spiritual, intellectual and social).

Physical activity is an important part of active aging, but it is only one component. Research has shown that, other than diet modification, physical activity holds the greatest promise for reducing the risk of chronic disease, which The Alliance for Aging Research considers a threat to Americans' health and economic well being. Projections indicate that 160 million Americans will suffer from chronic conditions by 2040.

Our industry has the potential to make a significant difference by improving our nation's health as well as its bottom line. When the fitness industry better serves the older adult market, we encourage more people to make healthier choices — and that will change the way people age.

In fact, we are already seeing two emerging movements in aging. The anti-aging approach considers aging and anything related to this natural process as things to be treated, covered up or eliminated altogether, if possible. Anti-aging focuses on the external. By playing on the insecurities, fears and hopes of older men and women, the anti-aging industry is making piles of profits with its pills, potions, creams, surgical procedures and the like. In contrast, the active aging approach focuses on the internal. It's an industry that embraces rather than fights the aging process, opting instead to improve this experience by promoting health, preventing disease and encouraging living life to the fullest.

Here are four market forces driving these industries.

  • Demographic: The number of adults more than 65 years old will double to more than 71 million by 2030. People aged 85 and older are the fastest-growing segment. Baby Boomers number 77 million today, including the youngest Boomers. However, chronological age is an ineffective method for describing this demographic because a person at age 85 can retain the functional capacity of a person at age 45.

  • Psychographic: Adults 50-plus are not a homogenous group. The attitudes and buying habits of the leading-edge Baby Boomers differ from those of their parents as well as those of the younger Boomers. Aspirations, lifestyles and attitudes about spending are as diverse as the age groups. Older adults, particularly the Baby Boomers who are just turning 60, do not perceive themselves as seniors who retire. They plan to work (whether from choice or necessity), volunteer and stay active.

  • Economics: Older adults account for the largest expense in health care. People older than 65 account for almost one-third of U.S. health-care expenditures or $300 billion each year. Without greater emphasis on prevention, health-care spending will increase 25 percent by 2030 (excluding inflation simply because the population will be older). Using physical activity to control chronic disease can mitigate these costs.

  • Messaging: Images of older adults bounce between the frail, medically impaired elder and the thin, surgically remodeled person. Instead, clubs should send messages focused on ability, activity, enjoyment and social interaction. These messages are more likely to be successful for this group, who measure themselves by their accomplishments instead of their age.

Where is the future for our industry? Two words: active aging. As this group emerges and becomes a dominant force in the health and fitness field, how will you position your facility?

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.