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Guest Column - November 2005

Is Group X Set for a New Explosion?

Senior Fitness

By Colin Milner


According to IDEA Health and Fitness Association's research, 51 percent of all personal-training clientele are over the age of 45. This would stand to reason as this group has more than 50 percent of the discretionary income and, more importantly, spends more of their income on health than any other item, according to the World Health Organization. But what about group fitness? What impact is a rapidly graying nation having on this area of the fitness industry?

Thought to be a fad in the late 1970s and early 1980s, dance exercise (later to be known as aerobics) has become a mainstay of fitness programming, even as some industry experts question the value of it. Since its inception, when disco was king, aerobics has transformed the industry. Now under the category title of group exercise, aerobics and other forms of group activity continue to evolve, addressing the needs of a more diverse membership and older population.

According to IDEA's research, more than 59 percent of clubs now offer some form of senior classes. These classes include balance, core training, functional training, small group training sessions, Pilates, yoga and sessions that address medical conditions.

Harvey Lauer, president of health and fitness research firm American Sports Data Inc., says the research shows that there has been heavy participation in kinder, gentler activities for women over 55—the nation's single fastest-growing group of exercisers in the United States.

An organization that has thrived with group exercise for the older adult is Tempe, Ariz.-based HealthCare Dimensions (HCD). In 2000, the company began offering the SilverSneakers Fitness Program to Medicare supplement carriers. The HCD program now touches more than 1.35 million older health-plan members through partnerships with 24 health insurance providers and 1,100 fitness centers.

HCD is just one example of how a company can become a leader in the industry by offering group exercise for older adults. But what does the future hold for group exercise and what types of programming will arrive on the fitness scene to meet the needs of the older adult?

Older adults needs

The needs of the older adult are many, which can create multiple opportunities for your organization and the industry. So much so that a June 2004 article in the Boston Globe reported: "Employment nationwide is forecast to increase from 177,790 fitness workers in 2003 to 263,947 by 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an increase of almost 50 percent…Specialists point to two factors fueling the growth: the aging of the American population and increased interest in worker fitness by employers."

To maximize this opportunity, be sure to keep the following market needs in mind, as they will assist you in figuring out what types of programs to offer your older members:

PROGRAMS THAT CAN REDUCE THE RISK OF DEVELOPING CHRONIC HEALTH CONDITIONS

IDEA's research highlights that sessions that address medical conditions are on the rise, whether range of motion, strength or balance classes—especially important when 33 percent of people over the age of 65 fall each year. What classes could you offer? Good examples include heart-health cardio classes, strong bones and Osteofit classes. These types of classes are sure to soar.

PROGRAMS THAT CAN HELP MANAGE THE IMPACT OF CURRENT HEALTH CONDITIONS

We have seen the impact that offering gentler forms of exercise had on the industry and on the body. After years of pounding our joints, the demand for gentle forms of exercise is not just a need but also a necessity. Offering Osteofit or the PACE Arthritis classes is certainly a good start. But what else looms on the horizon? Could it be Cobblestone Walking Classes? According to findings published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, walking on the so-called cobblestone mat improves physical function and reduces blood pressure to a greater extent than regular walking.

PROGRAMS THAT CAN IMPROVE MOOD, COGNITIVE HEALTH AND A SENSE OF WELL-BEING

Over the last few years we have seen yoga and Pilates surge to the top of group exercise. This should come as no surprise, as Boomers and their parents seek to connect with their inner self (in search of the meaning of life). But what's next? Will we see classes offered to improve cognitive health? As a nation of Boomers strives to keep their minds as sharp as tacks, what would such a class look like? Meditative thinking? The future will tell. One thing is certain, to improve mood, the social aspect and support will be keys.

PROGRAMS THAT CAN IMPROVE MOBILITY AND ABILITY TO FUNCTION INDEPENDENTLY

We talk about offering functional fitness, but will we offer FTF classes (fitness to function)? FTF classes actually would help those less able to achieve the fitness they need to accomplish the activities of daily living, that is, getting up out of a chair and walking up stairs—these two examples require strength in the legs and triceps. What other programs could you offer to help improve mobility and ability to functioning independently?

PROGRAMS THAT CAN HELP IMPROVE OVERALL QUALITY OF LIFE

Will the definition of group exercise once again change to meet the needs of the Boomers and their parents? Will it become Group Activity? And will it include such sessions as nutrition or social programming such as mentoring? Only the future will tell.

One thing is certain, dance exercise changed to aerobics, aerobics changed to group exercise, group exercise to group activity. Who knows? The future of group is a gray.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Milner is the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), the world's largest senior fitness trade association. For more information, visit the ICAA Web site, www.icaa.cc.


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