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Guest Column - July/August 2004

Welcome Seniors

By Janie Clark, M.A.


Your facility can better serve its community and, at the same time, increase its profit margin by making the most of our society's expanding senior market. Many older adults need qualified exercise supervision along with motivational guidance in order to achieve lasting improvements in physical fitness. They are looking for that instructor or trainer, that facility, and that activity program that will empower them to reach their goals. To capture your share of business from this exploding demographic sector, you need to make sure that your facility sends a very clear and consistent message: "Seniors Welcome Here!"

In order to attract and retain older adult clientele, managers should pay special attention to two critically important factors: (1) providing senior-friendly activity programs and (2) marketing your senior fitness services effectively. Let's look at some details on how to accomplish those objectives.

Senior-friendly programming

What does a potential client see and experience when visiting your facility? The physical environment is vital to people who may have hearing, sight, mobility or general health deficits. From an older adult viewpoint, buildings should feature easy-access entrances and exits. Rest rooms should be located near activity areas. Good ventilation, low humidity and a comfortable temperature are imperative. Also, be sure to supply a ready source of drinking water. Ensure proper lighting, eliminating any extremes (for example, dimness or glare).

Good acoustics are essential, too, so make sure your gym or classroom isn't an echo chamber. When music is played during exercise classes, limit the volume to moderate levels. Keep in mind that for many older clients, especially those who use hearing aids, excessive volume will contribute to an unpleasant, confusing din of competing sounds that can make following verbal instructions difficult.

The floor surface used for exercise classes must never be slippery, and it should "give" a little in order to reduce the impact on participants' joints. A wooden floor with air space underneath is ideal. When it comes to exercise machines, don't crowd too many together in a small space. Instead, position your equipment to reduce any risk of bumps, bruises, or falls.

Once you are satisfied that your physical setting is suitable for seniors, it's time to consider your physical activities. For starters, who designs and implements your older adult exercise programs? Senior fitness professionals should have senior-specific training. Just a few of the special areas in which they need expertise are: (1) older adult exercise guidelines, fitness testing and safety measures; (2) adjusting exercise for commonly prescribed medications; and (3) modifying exercise for age-related medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, pulmonary disorders and cardiovascular disease. Make sure your senior fitness trainers and instructors obtain the specialized technical training they need; it will benefit your staff, their older adult clients and your facility.

What types of exercise programs are senior-friendly? Group-exercise classes, such as low-impact aerobics, generally work well and generate a high participation rate. Ever popular offerings also include aquatics, tai chi, yoga-for-seniors and fitness walking classes. In recent years, senior strength training has come to be appreciated more and more (both by fitness professionals and by the general public) thanks to its excellent record at reducing hypertension and excess body fat, among other benefits. Senior circuit training, which can combine numerous forms of exercise, is starting to make a bigger name for itself as well. Another relative newcomer, functional fitness training, is designed to improve and preserve seniors' ability to perform routine activities of daily living (such as bathing, dressing and preparing simple meals), which can help them to continue living independently.

Of course, sometimes seniors just want to have fun. But that doesn't mean they can't gain exercise benefits at the same time. Think ballroom dancing, line dancing, and square dancing. Along the same lines, stress-buster and relaxation classes are immensely enjoyable and can include valuable balance and flexibility training. Likewise, chair-seated exercise classes may be easygoing, but they offer a real lifeline to low-fit seniors seeking to reclaim an active lifestyle. In planning senior fitness activities, be creative and remember that your clients' safety, the exercise benefits they gain and the pleasure they experience are the keys to making your programs senior-friendly.

Senior-targeted marketing

Radio and television spots can be very effective in local markets. However, it's more economical to use newspaper ads and fliers (which can be left at senior residential complexes and businesses that cater to older customers). Print ads should feature large type, concise copy, and uncomplicated graphics. Their message should stress the benefits senior clients can gain from your program (for example, higher energy, improved balance and better heart health).

You can use free publicity to attract new fitness clients by obtaining favorable media coverage. Notify local stations and publications when your facility plans to participate in special events like wellness fairs or charity fund-raisers.

In fact, consider hosting your own special event. Your "Senior Open House Day" might feature healthful refreshments, guided tours of your facility, free health and fitness appraisals (such as blood-pressure checks and flexibility testing), and senior-friendly exercise demonstrations.

None of the above will do any good if it succeeds in drawing potential senior clients to your door only to be met by front-desk personnel who are disinterested or unhelpful. Remember, we want people to feel welcome. So make sure the clerical workers who answer your phone and greet the public are well informed about your senior fitness programs and how terrific they are.

Now here's another strategy that you might not normally think of as marketing, but it could turn out to be your best promotional tool: word of mouth. For this, employing exceptional trainers and instructors makes all the difference. First you have to keep your current clients coming. In turn, clients who are enthusiastic about their program will encourage friends to try it. So keep your program interesting and fun. How? One good way is by using variety: regularly introduce new music, moves, and accessories (such as dumbbells, exercise bands, dowels, kerchiefs, and balls). Keep clients motivated by providing healthy-lifestyle education, by meeting periodically with individual clients to review their goals and progress, and by making sure your program continuously delivers real health and fitness results.

Above all, keep your clients feeling welcome. Use the personal touch to create an upbeat, sociable atmosphere: Know each member's name and use it during every fitness session, introduce clients to one another, call them when they miss a class, and routinely ask for their input and suggestions.

In closing, let's say that you have developed awesome senior-specific fitness programs. They promote safety, fun and social interaction while producing the physical training effects that seniors really care about. In addition, you have geared your marketing efforts towards addressing the concerns, goals and interests of the older adults in your community. If so, then most assuredly you have made your facility senior-friendly, and the word will get out: "Seniors Welcome Here!"

Janie Clark is president of the American Senior Fitness Association, which provides professional training, certification, and continuing education for senior fitness instructors and trainers. For more information, visit www.seniorfitness.net or call 800-243-1478.

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