This coming March will mark my 23rd year in the fitness industry — more than half my lifetime. During this time I have learned many lessons. None has been more powerful than what makes a prospect hot. Simply put, if they have the need, desire, time and the money, odds are they are a highly qualified buyer, one that most health club owners would not only find attractive, but also essential to the immediate and long-term success of the organization or the individual.

However, this lesson seems to be lost on a friend of mine. In a recent meeting, we were discussing how a new hospital wellness center had just opened in his area. He pointed out it had not affected his business at all, but when asked why not, he said the wellness center only attracted people older than 50. What he failed to understand was that even though he had not lost a member to the hospital, he actually had lost 1,300 potential dues-paying members because of his inability to recognize and then act upon the burgeoning older adult market in his community. He was not even in the game. At a fee of $40 per month, this lack of vision cost him $624,000 in lost business over the period of one year — an expensive learning experience.

The lesson: to grow our businesses we need to keep an open mind about who a qualified buyer actually is.

Let's start with the questions and take a closer look at the market.

  • Does the older adult have the need to become or remain healthy and fit? According to the American Association of Retired People (AARP), as adults reach the age of retirement, health and disease become a primary concern. How long older people can maintain and maximize their independence becomes their main concern. Research from Partnership for Solutions, a project of Johns Hopkins University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shows that health care costs for people with just one chronic condition averages $6,032 per year, which is five times higher than those without a condition.

    With such financial burden, it should come as no surprise that in a recent AARP study nearly half of respondents said they were going to work into their 70s or later due to rising health insurance costs and other monetary concerns. In fact, older adults spend more of their income on health than any other need or activity, according to the World Health Organization. Yet research from Health Partners Research Foundation shows that adults over the age of 50 who start exercising just 90 minutes a week can save an average of $2,200 per year in medical costs. The need to remain healthy, fit and independent has never been greater, and the rewards are personal and financial.

  • Does the older adult have the desire to exercise? Eighty-six percent of older adults agree that exercise is important to their health and longevity, and 64 percent would like to participate in more fitness activities, according to the Fitness Products Council and the Alliance for Aging Research. Yet they are not. Why? A study by the National Council on the Aging shows that the majority of seniors believe that taking care of their health is very important, but they do not know how to prepare for a healthy old age. Becoming an information provider, motivator and catalyst for change would bode well for any fitness organization or business.

  • Does the older adult have the time? According to the AARP, as older adults hit retirement, they adopt a new sense of time as their values and beliefs begin to change. Basically, if it is on their priority list, they have the time.

  • Does the older adult have the money? Many older adults live on a fixed income. However, as a group, the 50-plus market has more than 50 percent of the nation's disposable income and 80 percent of its wealth. Add to this the facts stated above, and money becomes less of an issue. The mantra “pay me now or pay me later” is probably best suited for this group. You can pay for a fitness membership to help you retain your independence, or you can spend money on drugs or other items due to ill health and low-fitness levels.

The bottom line is that athletes prepare for each game they play and become proficient in their skills. As we prepare for the older adult, we too, need to practice and become proficient because if you are not in the game, how can you win it?


Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. In the past 21 years, he has emerged as one of the nation's foremost visionaries and original thinkers regarding the health and well-being of the older adult. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. Milner's efforts have inspired a broad spectrum of industry leaders and publications to seek his advice. Included among these is the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Seattle Times and Parent Magazine.