Published November 28, 2005
They may not be hanging Beatles posters on the walls, or piping in the soundtrack from Yellow Submarine. Still, more and more fitness centers are doing everything they can to attract the baby boom generation — and it's working, with folks over 50 making up the fastest-growing segment of the fitness population.
"For about the past 15 years, the baby boom fitness market has been slowly growing," says Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging. "But in the last several years it has really exploded, and it's exploded in many segments, including health club memberships." According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, older adults are hitting gyms and health clubs at a record rate. The group says the number of health club members over 55 grew by 343 percent from 1987 to 2003, while the number of members in the 35-54 age group increased by 180 percent.
Milner says that by 2012, "those numbers will increase even more dramatically. This is a market that is only going to grow more and more as time goes on."
What's driving the change? Trend-watchers say the generation that once believed "never trust anyone over 30" is now well over 50 but still determined not to grow old.
"I think we could roll up the whole reasoning into just one phrase — quality of life — because the feedback we get is that people simply want to be active in their later years, and they now realize that being fit is one of the only ways to do that," says Dean Witherspoon, president of Health Enhancement Systems, which creates health programs for corporations and other organizations.
Milner agrees: "A lot of the problems we used to think of as being related to aging, we now know aren't related to aging at all. They are related to disuse of the body, and boomers have finally begun to realize 'Hey, we can do something about that.'"
Indeed, studies continue to show that we can. For example, research recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that inactivity doubles the risk of mobility limitations as we age, while vigorous activity has the opposite effect. In another study, published in the journal Neurology, doctors found that exercise can slow cognitive declines — meaning our minds can stay sharper longer.
"No matter what area you look to, be it heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, research shows that being physically fit into your senior years will keep you healthier and active longer," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise.
And baby boomers are not about to let that opportunity slip by, experts say.
"Unlike our grandparents, who simply hoped they could hang around long enough to collect Social Security, our generation has every expectation that at 60 we're going to be doing the same things we did at 45 — and it's a very good possibility that we will," says Witherspoon.
Redefining Fitness, Boomer-Style
While the idea of midlife fitness may have been sneaking into our collective consciousness for some time, experts say the real difference came when health clubs themselves began to change.
Leading the pack: a Harlington, Texas, company with a chain of health clubs known as Curves. It started in 1995 as one location offering a circuit-training program aimed at women over 45, and in just 36 months it grew to 1,000 locations. Today there are some 9,000 Curves gyms worldwide.
But what was different about this club? Some believe it simply made fitness easier for the overworked, overstressed Boomer to achieve.
"It put the health club into the neighborhood, and created a fast, time-saving, 30-minute workout a woman could easily fit into her day," says Milner.
It also did something else. Experts say it created a more attainable model for success.
"Essentially, it did away with the 'perfect body' dream, and replaced it with the much more realistic 'better lifestyle and better health' dream — and it worked," says Milner.
It also helped spawn an entire industry. In addition to the 8,000 Curves locations around the United States, similar organizations such as Slim and Tone for women and now Cuts — a kind of Curves for men — are taking off.
What's more, even gyms and health clubs that have traditionally courted the hard-body set are looking to catch some backsplash from the Baby Boomer fitness wave. Bally Total Fitness is launching an ad campaign aimed at Boomers, according to news reports, while the Southern California chain of Gold's Gyms plans to begin featuring 50-somethings in its ads.
50-and-Up Fitness: What You Must Know
While the spirit may be willing, experts say, by the time you're 50 or older, your body needs a little extra attention if you are to benefit in both the short and the long run.
Some experts worry that not every gym or health club is up to the challenge.
"The shift towards getting fit after 50 is definitely taking place, but unfortunately, the staff and instructors at many gyms and fitness clubs are not really set up for this paradigm change," says Robert Catalini, an exercise physiologist and director of the Holy Redeemer Health and Fitness Center at Holy Redeemer Medical Center in Meadowbrook, Pa.
This is particularly important for those who have not exercised in the past or who have become sedentary in recent years, he says.
"The longer it has been since you set foot inside a gym, the more you are going to have to rely on your instructors to guide you to the right kinds of activities, so it's important that they really know what they are doing, " says Bryant.
Moreover, Catalini says, if you're already saddled with health issues — like achy joints, bad knees, or back pain — as well as risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity, you need to be doubly sure you're getting the right advice.
"There's no question you can do it, and should do it, but there are certain things you have to pay attention to, and certain guidelines you have to follow, and they can't be the same ones you followed in your 20s or 30s or even 40s," says Catalini.
7 Ways to Ensure Success
To help put you on the path to a fit and healthy future, Bryant and Catalini offer the following guidelines to help ensure your midlife workout plan is a success.
1. Ask questions, particularly if you have health concerns: Can you accommodate my bad back, do you have instructors with a background in cardio exercise, is your pool heated and to what temperature? Anything that affects your condition should be addressed well before you sign on the dotted line. Also make certain that the instructors have experience coaching regular folks (not athletes) over 50.
2. Make sure your trainer, club manager, or fitness instructor takes a medical history as well as a family history before planning your workout program. This should include a Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire or PAR-Q test to determine your physical age, which may not be the same as your chronological one. Workouts should be based on your physical age.
3. Tell your fitness instructors about any health conditions (for example, asthma or heart disease) or risk factors (if you smoke, if you get easily winded, if your have joint problems), and let them know about all medications you're taking. Some can cause fatigue, muscles aches, or other issues that could be confused with workout issues.
4. Be clear about your fitness goals and convey them to your instructor or health club manager. Do you want to lose weight, get more energy, relieve pain, strengthen joints? Tell them — and make sure gym has the ability to help you meet that goal.
5. Don't try to compete with younger members, or with the memory of your former self. Experts say the worst thing you can do is to focus on your years as a high school quarterback and try to match what you could do decades earlier. Set new, age-adjusted goals and compete with yourself only in the here and now.
6. Get a check-up before joining any gym or starting an exercise program, no matter how great you feel. Inform your doctor of your fitness plans and discuss any concerns or limitations together. Check in with your doctor anytime you experience significant discomfort while working out, including shortness of breath, chest pains, headaches, dizziness, or muscle aches that don't subside after a day or two of rest.
7. Listen to your body, not your trainer. While it's OK to push hard and long you're young, consistency is a better goal after 50. If your body is saying take it slower, then take it slower. Period.
By Colette Bouchez, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, May 2005. Neurology, 2004 vol 63: pp 2202-2003. International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub web site. Colin Milner, chief executive officer, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Canada. Dean Witherspoon, president, Health Enhancement Systems. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist, American Council on Exercise, Seattle. Robert Catalini, exercise physiologist and director, Holy Redeemer Health and Fitness Center, Holy Redeemer Medical Center, Meadowbrook, Pa.