Maria Fiatarone's sentinel paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1990 forever changed the way exercise and the aging are viewed. The study showed nursing home residents benefiting from high-intensity strength training by walking faster and being more active around the facility — a theory unheard of at the time. The results: increased functional ability and improvements in activity and quality of life, plus no injuries.

“The idea at the time was completely out of the box,” says Dr. David Buchner, branch chief of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity. “We went from knowing hardly anything about the effects of physical activity on older adults to saying that physical activity is incredibly beneficial for this age group.”

Fast forward to the year 2002. We read almost daily about increasing evidence of the beneficial physiologic and functional effects of physical activity for the aging. Epidemiological studies show that active older adults are less likely to experience a decline in function with age; randomized trials demonstrate that physical activity improves function in older adults. Which is why health clubs in their advertising and marketing campaigns should target the older market. This incredibly large segment of the population is the key to driving your club's business success.

The Benefits of Regular Exercise in the Elderly

“Regular exercise offers benefits across a wide range of health conditions and problems from cancer to various types of gallbladder disease, plus heart disease and diabetes,” says Dr. Steven Blair of the Cooper Institute. “Perhaps most importantly, exercise can preserve function and independence.”

According to Blair, there are few things that have a more profound effect on more bodily systems than exercise. Furthermore, during vigorous exercise, every body system revs up — metabolic, biochemical, hormonal, temperature regulation, function and cardiovascular respiration.

“Studies from Tufts University show that you take older adults into the weight room and you push them. They don't die; they double and triple their muscle strength and throw away their walkers.” Says Blair. “If exercise was going to kill people, it would have killed that group. Yet they literally had no adverse events. It's a myth that older adults are fragile and cannot exercise. We were meant to be active animals. It's our natural state. By being sedentary, we put ourselves in an unnatural state.”

Facilities must remember to serve the individual as that, not just as part of an age group, to see increased benefits and reduced injuries.

“There are frail individuals. Certainly, as you go up the age spectrum, you have more health issues and potential adverse events, but they are still pretty rare,” says Blair. “A facility needs to be aware and have an emergency plan in place. But clubs can get sued just as easily over a highly fit 22 year-old who falls and breaks something or drops dead from an abnormality in his or her cardiovascular system.”

Successful Aging

We are continually discovering new aspects of the effects of physical activity. Research is growing and showing that physically active older adults are less likely to have dementia and cognitive decline. As we better understand the benefits of physical activity, we find ourselves going back to John W. Rowe and Robert L. Khan's Successful Aging. Yes, we see a lot of usual aging. But we also see a large potential for successful aging. And, in this respect, our clubs have a huge potential for successful marketing prospects. As it stands now, 7.4 million health club members are over the age of 55, according to the Health Club Trend Report published by American Sports Data Inc.

Who knows what we may accomplish in the next decade? As history shows, society changes when change is set in motion.

Colin Milner is the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging. He has 20 years of industry background including club management, consulting, publishing, and is the former president of IDEA Health and Fitness Association and chief operating officer of the Keiser Institute on Aging. He has authored over 80 industry articles and has been interviewed extensively in leading publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

A Blueprint for Action

In May 2001, a coalition of 46 national organizations released a plan to get older Americans moving. The National Blueprint: Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 50 and Older guides and supports organizations in their efforts to persuade older Americans to adopt active lifestyles.

For more information about the National Blueprint, contact the International Council on Active Aging, 507-522 Moberly Road, Vancouver BC V5Z 4G4; toll-free: (866) 335-9777, tel: (604) 734-4466, Fax: (604) 708-4464; cmilner@attglobal.net; www.icaa.cc